Thanks for the Patent System

Although I write on a variety of subjects, my main professional training (through the PhD level) is as a chemical engineer. Chemical engineering is one of the broader technical disciplines. It bridges between chemistry, which is mainly associated with academic-type laboratory work, and huge chemical plant equipment. One year I was making and testing catalysts in the lab, then next I was calculating fluid flows and designing internals for a 100 ft high distillation tower (and climbing around inside that tower to insure the parts were being properly welded in place):

In my work in industrial research, I have been paid to develop technical improvements which could have economic value. A key incentive my company had for investing in this research was the expectation that if we came up with a novel improvement, that we could have exclusive rights to practice that improvement. There would have been little point in paying for research if our competitors could immediately make use of our hard-won insights. A snip of one of my patents is shown below.

For the world, and for most large groupings such as nations, the average income per capital is roughly equal to the average production per capita. The way to get more “stuff” (goods and services, and all their benefits) is to make more stuff. The way to make more stuff (per capita, and for fixed a workweek) is to make workers more productive. A key factor in productivity is technology. Two hundred years ago, nearly everyone in the U.S. had to be out in the sun and cold, working the soil, sowing by hand and plowing with the aid of animals, to grow enough food to feed everyone. Now I believe we are fed by only 2% of the workforce, using artificial fertilizers, improved seeds, huge tractors and combines, and satellite-aided computer scheduling. Most of the rest of us get to work in air-conditioned offices (or homes, in a pandemic year) and eat as much food as we want.

The patent system of the U.S. and other nations is designed to promote progress in productive technology. Early on, the newborn U.S. Congress passed the Patent Act of 1790, titled “An Act to promote the progress of useful Arts”.  Without getting into all the legal details, a valid U.S. patent allows the inventor to exclude any other party from practicing their invention, for a period of twenty years. However, one of the requirement for a patent application is to clearly explain to the public how the invention works. When the twenty years is over, anyone can take advantage of the technology which the inventor has disclosed, which hopefully leads to widespread practice of technical improvements. While we can always ponder improvements to our system of patents, readers can thank it in part for many medical advances, and for delivering them from trudging behind a plow.

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