Collective Invention of Blast Furnaces

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Collective Invention of Blast Furnaces in Britain’s Cleveland district

Peter Meyer:

"Allen (1983) found that from the 1850s through the 1870s iron-making companies in northeast England’s Cleveland district allowed visitors and consultants to see the insides of plants and to write about the way their blast furnaces made usable iron from ore. Wellknown researchers at the time such as Isaac Lowthian Bell, Thomas Whitwell, and J.G. Beckton published information about the designs, size, temperature, and contents of blast furnaces. The information came from observing production, not from formal research efforts. Publications and well-informed consultants helped establish which blast furnace designs used fuel most efficiently. Plant designs evolved to have taller furnace stacks (filled with the input materials) and toward hotter and hotter furnaces. The design changes were not generally patentable because of the nature of the technology. Since plant design was a natural area of competition one might have thought the owners of blast furnaces would each prefer to keep this information secret. But Allen concluded that through the sharing process firms could reasonably expect to learn more valuable information than they gave up, and therefore each firm preferred such information be made public over taking the risk of shutting it down by withdrawing. The collective invention regime substituted for research and development spending. Furnace efficiency improved over time. Allen found that little of this improvement was caused by private research and development effort." (