By Aaron Graham (Oxford University)
This full article from this blog post has been published in the Economic History Review.
For a long time the plantation colonies of the Americas were seen as backward and undeveloped, dependent for their wealth on the grinding enslavement of hundreds of thousands of people. This was only part of the story, albeit a major one. Sugar, coffee, cotton, tobacco and indigo plantations were also some of the largest and most complex economic enterprises of the early industrial revolution, exceeding many textile factories in size and relying upon sophisticated technologies for the processing of raw materials. My article looks at the patent system of Jamaica and the British Atlantic which supported this system, arguing that it facilitated a process of transatlantic invention, innovation and technological diffusion.
The first key finding concerns the nature of the patent system in Jamaica. As in British America, patents were granted by colonial legislatures rather than by the Crown, and besides merely registering the proprietary right to an invention they often included further powers, to facilitate the process of licensing and diffusion. They were therefore more akin to industrial subsidies than modern patents. The corollary was that inventors had to demonstrate not just novelty but practicality and utility; in 1786, when two inventors competed to patent the same invention, the prize went to the one who provided a successful demonstration (Figure 1). As a result, the bar was higher, and only about sixty patents were passed in Jamaica between 1664 and 1857, compared to the many thousands in Britain and the United States.
Figure 1. ‘Elevation & Plan of an Improved SUGAR MILL by Edward Woollery Esq of Jamaica’
However, the second key finding is that this ‘bar’ was enough to make Jamaica one of the centres of colonial technological innovation before 1770, along with Barbados and South Carolina, which accounted for about two-thirds of the patents passed in that period. All three were successful plantation colonies, where planters earned large amounts of money and had both the incentive and the means to invest heavily in technological innovations intended to improve efficiency and profits. Patenting peaked in Jamaica between the 1760s and 1780s, as the island adapted to sudden economic change, as part of a package of measures that included opening up new lands, experimenting with new cane varieties, engaging in closer accounting, importing more slaves and developing new ways of working them harder.
A further finding of the article is that the English and Jamaican patent systems until 1852 were complementary. Inventors in Britain could purchase an English patent with a ‘colonial clause’ extending it to colonial territories, but a Jamaican patent offered them additional powers and flexibility as they brought their inventions to Jamaica and adapted it to local conditions. Inventors in Jamaica could obtain a local patent to protect their invention while they perfected it and prepared to market it in Britain. The article shows how inventors used varies strategies within the two systems to help support the process of turning their inventions into viable technologies.
Finally, the colonial patents operated alongside a system of grants, premiums and prizes operated by the Jamaican Assembly, which helped to support innovation by plugging the gaps left by the patent system. Inventors who felt that their designs were too easily pirated, or that they themselves lacked the capacity to develop them properly, could ask for a grant instead that recompensed them for the costs of invention and made the new technology widely available. Like the imperial and colonial patents, the grants were part of the strategies used to promote invention.
Indeed, sometimes the Assembly stepped in directly. In 1799, Jean Baptiste Brouet asked the House for a patent for a machine for curing coffee. The committee agreed that the invention was novel, useful and practical, ‘but as the petitioner has not been naturalised and is totally unable to pay the fees for a private bill’, they suggested granting him £350 instead, ‘as a full reward for his invention; [and] the machines constructed according to the model whereof may then be used by any person desirous of the same, without any license from or fee paid to the petitioner’.
The article therefore argues that Jamaican patents were part of wider transatlantic system that acted to facilitate invention, innovation and technological diffusion in support of the plantation economy and slave society.