Steam. Electricity. Radio. Computing. At various stages of history, all have become colossal infrastructures that have had seismic effects on the human population – promoting technological development, shrinking distances and binding communities together.
But there have been one or two arguments along the way…
ROUND ONE: James Watt v Jonathan Hornblower
DURATION OF FIGHT: 1781 to 1800
BATTLING OVER: The Age of Steam
In 1769, James Watt obtained UK patent 913 for the then-standard term of 14 years on his new-style steam engine. His invention improved upon prior models by condensing the steam in a separate chamber from the workings – a tweak that made the engine much more efficient.
Meanwhile, Hornblower – an inventor’s inventor with a family steeped in engineering – was working on his own type of motivation: the compound engine. Awarded patent 1298 in July 1781, Hornblower’s effort included multiple stages of steam expansion to increase power, as well as separate condensers – something that forced Watt to pen a splenetic letter to his backer Matthew Boulton, a rich industrialist. ‘It is no less than our double-cylinder engine worked upon our principle of expansion,’ he raged.
Unfortunately for Hornblower, Watt and Boulton had already secured an unprecedented Act of Extension on their patent, passed in 1775 after they convinced Parliament of their engine’s importance to British industry. The patent’s expiry date was put back to 1800, giving Watt and Boulton wider scope in which to litigate – and, not long after Hornblower received his own patent, Watt and Boulton sued him for infringement. In 1799, the duo finally won a hefty financial settlement. Despite a general view among experts that Hornblower’s engine was superior, its technology was left undeveloped for many years.
Even US economist Frederic Scherer – a major supporter of the patent system – was moved to criticise Watt’s dependency on intangible assets in his 1984 book Innovation and Growth. ‘Most of [his] firm’s profits were derived from royalties on the use of engines rather than from the sale of manufactured engine components,’ Scherer wrote, ‘and without patent protection, the firm plainly could not have collected royalties.’ In recognising how pure IP Rights could be monetised, though, Watt had powered leagues ahead of his time.
ROUND TWO: Nikola Tesla v Thomas Edison
DURATION OF FIGHT: 1880 to 1903
BATTLING OVER: Public electricity supply
From one kind of energy to another – and a story that encompasses a tortoise, a hare… and a very unfortunate elephant.
Once Thomas Edison had patented his famous improvement on electrical bulbs, he realised that it wasn’t much of an asset unless there was a power-distribution network that would link all his lights together. In 1880, he received US patent 239,147 for just such a system, based on direct current (DC) electricity. Enter previous NewLegal Review subject Nikola Tesla. Fresh off a ship from Europe in 1884 with around four cents to his name – but packing a hugely impressive inventor’s CV – Tesla soon found work with Edison and immediately dedicated himself to patenting around alternating current (AC) power. As befits the subject matter, tensions between Tesla and his boss rapidly triggered dangerous sparks.
While Edison maintained that DC power (the hare) was cheap to control and distribute because it only moved in one direction, Tesla’s point was that AC (the tortoise) would be more efficient over longer distances. The problem with DC, Tesla argued, was that it would create electromagnetic resistance in wires and cables – a problem that AC avoids by periodically turning back on itself. Edison and Tesla’s working relationship frazzled to a crisp in the heat of debate. But entrepreneur George Westinghouse stepped in to purchase Tesla’s AC patents, giving the inventor a lifeline.
Some of Tesla’s concepts led to the development of the Mill Creek No 1 Hydroelectric Plant in California, opened in 1893, which set the stage for the dominance of AC power at national level. Determined to discredit the system, Edison went on a propaganda drive to convince the public of AC’s dangers. That reached a nadir in 1903, with the public electrocution by AC current of circus elephant Topsy at New York’s vaudeville hotspot Coney Island. While the act turned heads at the time as a piece of outlandish theatre, it is now regarded in scientific and moral terms as a ghastly parting shot from a man who had lost the argument.
ROUND THREE: Nikola Tesla (again) v Guglielmo Marconi
DURATION OF FIGHT: 1904 to 1943
BATTLING OVER: Radio broadcasting
Ah, Tesla… we meet again.
Never afraid to butt heads with the heavyweight intellects of his time, the Serbian maverick had scarcely recovered from his bout with Edison before he leapt into another brawl with Marconi. The roots of their dispute began in 1897, when Tesla applied for a US patent on wireless telegraphy that he stumbled on, poetically enough, during further research on AC power in 1891. The patent (645,576) was granted in 1900.
That year, Marconi submitted a US application for his own system, but was refused in 1903 on the grounds that it was too similar to Tesla’s, and matched parts of an earlier patent the Serb had received in the field of electrical transmission. The following year, the US Patent Office (forerunner of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, or USPTO) made a spectacular volte face and granted Marconi’s patent. Exactly why they did so has been the subject of intense speculation, but one of the most likely reasons is that Marconi had burnished his image with a number of high-profile transmissions across ever more ambitious distances, earning a pioneering reputation. Tesla gave the withering assessment: ‘Let him continue – he is using 17 of my patents.’
Tesla’s financial management was never in good enough shape for him to contest Marconi’s patent, but, in 1943, the US Supreme Court overturned it. Sadly, Tesla had died earlier that year – and, in any case, conspiracy theorists spied an ulterior motive behind the ruling: it was known at the time that the US government was heavily behind on royalty payments to Marconi’s company for use of its radio technology. If it cancelled the patent on which the technology was based, it wouldn’t owe a cent.
ROUND FOUR: Steve Jobs v Bill Gates
DURATION OF FIGHT: 1985 to 2011
BATTLING OVER: The soul of personal computing
Back in the primeval days of personal computing, Bill Gates was Steve Jobs’ contractor, hired in from Microsoft to churn out Basic code for the Apple II machine that was prepping for launch in 1977. Two years later, Jobs was struck by Apple designers’ early work on the Macintosh – a machine he began to favour over one that he was developing himself. Once again, Gates was brought in as software guru – this time to work on the groundbreaking graphical interface that would enable users to find their way around the machine by clicking onscreen icons.
The Macintosh was unveiled in a blaze of publicity in 1984. But Jobs was crushed when Gates staged the next watershed in graphical computing – Windows, launched the following year – at his own company. As such, the mid-1980s became the wellspring of a rivalry that has encompassed countless items of hardware and software – plus vast, totemic operating systems that have come to define the very world in which we live.
Jobs’ untimely death last year may have curtailed the personal rivalry – but, in the competition between Apple and Microsoft, there are scores of chapters yet unwritten.