Open Innovation in the 18th Century Cornish Tin Mines

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Common platforms and peer to peer working allows innovation to emerge from a community. Communities of innovation are all the rage on the web but once again, they are very old. Community and conversation is the root of creativity. Ideas live in within communities as much as they do in the heads of individuals as shown for example in the 18th century Cornish tin mining industry just before the industrial revolution.

Cornwall was the Silicon Valley of its day, home to the most impressive innovations in industrial technology. Cornish tin and copper mines posed the trickiest problems for engineers and so demanded the greatest ingenuity. The deeper the mines went the more prone to flooding they became. In 1769 the inventor James Watt came up with a engine design which incorporated a separate condenser that cut the amount of coal needed by two thirds. This transformed the economics of mining. The Watt engine, marketed with his business partner Mathew Boulton, quickly spread through Cornish mines but [Nuvoulari papers...] the mine owners became disenchanted. Boulton and Watt charged mine owners a royalty fee equivalent to a third of the amount of money that a mine saved each year after installing their engine, the design of which was protected by a very broad patent enforced ferociously. Mine owners soon started to complain.

The patent meant they could not improve on the design through their own efforts. Boulton and Watt had no incentive to make further improvements because they were making so such money. In 1790 Cornish mine owners revolted. Today they would be denounced as software pirates: they started to install unauthorised versions of the engine. Boulton and Watt took them to court and got their patent’s life-span extended to 1800. Innovation ground to a halt. Boulton and Watt never made another sale in Cornwall. In 1811, a group of mine captains – lead by Joel Lean a respected local engineer – started a journal to share new ideas in the spirit of collaboration and open competition that often marks creative communities.

Lean’s Engine Reporter was published each month for almost a century, reporting on all aspects of engine design. A year after the Reporter started, Richard Trevithick and Arthur Woolf introduced a new design that fast became the industry’s standard operating system. Woolf and Trevithick did not patent their design and freely allowed other mines to copy from the original erected at the Wheal Prosper mine. They made their money installing, adapting and improving engines. The tightly knit community of Cornish engineers were soon swapping ideas through the Lean Reporter for how to improve on the basic idea.

During Boulton and Watt’s ascendancy, following an initial leap, innovation stalled. The open and collaborative period that followed produced near continuous innovation for more than thirty years, as a host of practitioner-engineers improved upon Woolf and Trevithick’s design. None of this invention was patented. By 1845, engines in Cornish mines were more than three times more efficient than the Boulton and Watt engine of 1800. They became known as “Cornish” engines in recognition of the cumulative, collaborative and collective nature of the innovation. During this period Cornwall had the fastest rate of steam engine innovation in the world and the lowest rate of patenting in Great Britain.

The Cornish engine story prefigures today’s contest between Microsoft and open source software: sharing can be a highly effective basis for commercial endeavour. In Cornwall rival firms released to one another ideas that brought significant cost reductions to all. They did so because the mine owners had a strong shared interest and independent mine engineers were keen to make known what they had achieved. The Cornish tin mines ran on open source software centuries before the computer. The web is reviving this communal approach to innovation, using the web as its tool rather than Lean’s Engine Reporter.