This session will explore three closely related themes in the history of science and technology that are often studied separately: intellectual property, national-security secrecy, and the transition from the Pax Britannica to the Pax Americana. Because these themes bear centrally on the production and control of knowledge and technological artifacts, they are equally relevant to SHOT and HSS. The papers on this panel extend work by such SHOT/HSS stalwarts as John Krige and Alex Wellerstein in new directions. Steen's paper, focused on World War I, traces how the US government's desire to acquire radio inventions from private contractors led it to ignore the rights of existing patentees and to revise patent law so as to protect infringing contractors from disgruntled inventors. Put differently, Steen shows how the government created new legal knowledge in order to acquire technological knowledge in a political economy nominally committed to liberal property norms. Falcone's paper, focused on World War II, illuminates the United States' acquisition of both technological and bureaucratic knowledge from Britain. In so doing, he reveals that the institutional capacity to manage large-scale R&D was an important (but over-looked) component of national power, and he pushes back against historians' tendency to date US rise and British decline too early. Epstein's paper bridges the first two, chronologically and thematically, by showing how the US Navy plagiarized a crucial British technology during World War I and then tried to prevent the British inventor from securing compensation during World War II-first by using the patent law revised in World War I to shield the infringing defense contractor, next by refusing to disclose evidence of plagiarism on secrecy grounds, and finally by declining to share potentially incriminating information with a British mission sent to transfer British technology to the United States.
Radio, U.S. Patent Law, and World War I
Radios played a critical role in World War I, both as a means of strategic communication in waging war but also as a window on ideas about patent policy. Radio technology had already challenged the efficacy of the American system of patent governance by World War I, but the war's demand for radio communication made the American military a voracious consumer of radio technology, no matter who owned the patents. In this paper, I want to focus on military contracting as a strain on patent governance, with both innovative and destructive consequences.
Excellent scholarship exists on the U.S. confiscation of German radio capacity and on the creation of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) as a means to keep American radio patents in American hands. In addition, the U.S. Navy, which owned some radio patents, made a strong play in Congress to put much of radio communication under its control. All of these stories form the critical context for this story.
Fritz Lowenstein, an Austrian-born engineer and radio manufacturer, obtained military contracts to make radios and freely violated existing patents, arguing that the law didn't prohibit the U.S. government from using patents-an interpretation rewarded with lawsuits from angry patent owners. Lowenstein provides one lens through which to sort through competing interpretations of the key 1910 law governing claims against the U.S. government for unauthorized use of patents, as well as its 1918 amendment. But Lowenstein also became a conduit for the distribution of best-practice technologies, one reason the U.S. Navy, a beneficiary of such technologies, conveniently stayed out of patent disputes.
This paper is part of a larger project on U.S. patent governance in the first half of the twentieth century, an era of big business, monopoly, war, and depression. My working hypothesis is that the world wars created conditions for policy experimentation.
The Politics of Erasure: Memory, Technology, and Institutions in Second World War-era Anglo-American Diplomacy
The Anglo-American relationship in the decade after the Second World War was frequently marked by British accusations of U.S. technological theft. Many of the high-tech artefacts so celebrated by Americans and so coveted by the world, the argument went, were actually British designs swept away by persistent American chicaneries amid the desperation of war. While many of these stories oversimplified the complexities of the transatlantic knowledge transfers of the war, many did contain kernels of truth: The United States had profited enormously from unrestricted access to world-leading British R&D after 1940, and both state secrecy provisions and corporate domination ensured that the results would remain the domain of the Americans themselves after the war. At the same time, the concentration by both sides on narratives surrounding prominent objects diverted attention from other forms of knowledge movement. Specifically, it discounted the role of more informal flows carried in the form of "knowledgeable bodies," as well as their guidance in building technological institutions, rather than mere transfers of end-product data and secrets. In short, these knowledgeable bodies bore critical expertise in systemic organization and materiality, a confluence that was obscured-among historical actors and many historians since-by the postwar focus on invention priority in such areas as radar and penicillin. Exploring the ways in which British R&D institutions were adapted for the U.S sociopolitical context on the one hand, and the ways in which technologies came to be indigenized in legal and cultural discourses as "American" on the other, this paper will argue that transatlantic diplomatic disputes over high-technological artefacts contributed to the erasure of the role played by knowledgeable bodies, informal knowledge flows, and institutional know-how in the development of the U.S. military-industrial complex.
Yesterday's China: US Patent Law and Anglo-American Technology Transfer
In the decade before World War I, a British inventor named Arthur Pollen invented the world's first system for naval gunnery targeting-a so-called fire-control system. In 1913, Pollen shared it with the US Navy in the hope of receiving an order. Instead, the Navy gave his plans to a US defense contractor, the Ford Instrument Company, which plagiarized it. In accordance with the 1918 amendment to US patent law (discussed by Steen above), which made the US government in the Court of Claims-rather than defense contractors in district court-the target of lawsuits by inventors claiming that a contractor infringed their patents, the government agreed to indemnify Ford against any infringement lawsuit brought by Pollen. Accordingly, when Pollen decided to pursue a legal remedy in the 1930s, he sued the US government rather than Ford. The government responded by invoking what would now be called the "state secrets privilege": it refused to turn over the evidence that Pollen needed to prove his case on the grounds that doing so would endanger national security. Pollen then pivoted to sue Ford in district court, trying to get around the jurisdictional limits of the 1918 act. The government defeated this effort by attaching itself to the case as an intervening party and re-asserting the state secrets privilege. To prevent Pollen from acquiring evidence by other means, the US Navy also refused to share information on fire control with the high-level British mission sent to the United States in 1940 to jumpstart technological cooperation between the two countries-the same mission that, in Falcone's words above, provided "unrestricted access to world-leading British R&D after 1940." In effect, the United States in World War II blocked any reverse flow of knowledge that might have exposed its piracy of British technology in World War I. Thus, this paper connects Steen's paper on US patent law with Falcone's paper on knowledge transfer between the United States and Britain.