Business History Review


Patent Alchemy: The Market for Technology in US History

Naomi R. Lamoreaux, Kenneth L. Sokoloff and Dhanoos Sutthiphisal


The literature on inventors has traditionally focused on entrepreneurs who exploited their ideas in their own businesses and on researchers who worked in large firms' R&D laboratories. For most of US history, however, it was as common for inventors to profit from their ideas by selling off or licensing the patent rights. This article traces the different ways in which inventors resolved the information problems involved in marketing their patents. We focus in particular on the patent attorneys who emerged during the last third of the nineteenth century to help inventors find buyers for their intellectual property.

NAOMI R. LAMOREAUX is Stanley B. Resor Professor of Economics and History at Yale University and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Her article, “The Mystery of Property Rights: A US Perspective,” appeared in the Journal of Economic History in June 2011.

KENNETH L. SOKOLOFF died in 2007. He was a long-time professor of economics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. His coauthored book with Stanley L. Engerman, Economic Development in the Americas since 1500: Endowments and Institutions, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2012.

DHANOOS SUTTHIPHISAL is assistant professor of business economics at the Martin de Tours School of Management and Economics, Assumption University, Thailand. She and Shih-tse Lo published “Crossover Inventions and Knowledge Diffusion of General Purpose Technologies: Evidence from the Electrical Technology” in the Journal of Economic History in September 2010.