The Grumpy Economist

William Lee and his knitting machine. Henson was an important British trade union innovator in the first 19th century. So, as I gather indirectly, the story offered from a source was trying to make a point definitely, and (again reading only Tim) has precious little primary proof for the famous discussion.

The first lesson: beware these apocryphal stories passed on through secondary, tertiary and eventually gossipy sources. This lesson was brought home to me by Peter Garber’s great “Famous First Bubbles” book (I had developed lots of fun reviewing it). Garber returned to check out actual primary sources behind stories that though apocryphal are approved around as true among economists, like the famous tulip “bubble.” They aren’t true either. Though they make good stories. I acquired a deeper lesson, on just how economies proved helpful in early modern Europe. Early economies were so pervasively regulated, that the only thing to do with an innovation was to run to obtain a Royal monopoly.

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William Lee invented a stocking-making machine. Having found out the method of knitting by machinery now, his next effort was directed to obtain the golden harvest which had flattered his imagination. It goes on, interestingly. Had Mr. Lee made a machine that would have made silk stockings, I will, I think, have been justified in granting him a patent for your monopoly somewhat, which would have affected only a small variety of my topics.

= $ =p>The right time. Lee had chosen to apply to the federal government, though to his sanguine mind very propitious for remuneration. Elizabeth was extremely low, due to the enormous expenses which she got incurred in preparations to meet the Spanish armada in the preceding yr. Actually, I believe they do.

Most deals were restricted to guild members and you couldn’t just cook bread and sell it. 16th hundred years England also seems to mean more a general monopoly right than our current understanding, such as a “patent” to sell iron. Lee continued to the French court, to get a patent and monopoly too there.

Lee never, apparently, made a bundle actually making stockings. He died unhappily in France, though his machine did get adopted. Just how long it took a simple stocking machine to be used may reveal something interesting about why economic development was so sluggish to use. The interesting observation here: it’s 1589, so you invent an awesome new machine, say to make stockings. What do you do with it? You and I might answer, “start making stockings.” You are able to undersell the competition and make a bundle. Or, we might answer, “start selling stocking-making machines.” Sure, others will follow, but you have a huge first-mover advantage.

Yes, if a modern patent system were up and running it might be useful to get a patent and make an effort to slow down competitors. But first and foremost, get the business going. That Lee did not do that — that it seems not to have happened to him – is informing about precisely how controlled and controlled economies evidently were at the time.

It brings to mind two other recent histories I read, Dava Sobel’s Longitude and Charles Coulston Gillispies’ reserve on the Montgolfier Brothers. Longitude: In the 1700s, it was a problem to know how east or west a dispatch was far. After painstaking work, John Harrison came up with a remedy: a clock that could tell time accurately, even at sea. What did he do with it?