Another Peculiar Patent

Rollin White was a machinist, working for Samuel Colt as a contract worker. At the same time, he tinkered with bits and pieces of scrap, and designed a firearm of his own. It wasn’t a practical or even workable design: it was inferior to existing handguns, but in 1855 White was granted a patent, number 12,648: “Improvement in Repeating Fire-arms”.

detail view from White’s 1855 patent

“People see me, Rollin…” – a detail from White’s 1855 patent

This would be of no significance whatsoever, were it not for the fact that White accidentally included a feature that nobody had patented in the USA. His weapon showed a cylinder bored all the way through, such that cartridges might be inserted from the back – just about the only sensible way to load many firearms.

Such a feature should never have been covered by a patent, because it was already commonplace. In Europe the Lefaucheux Model 1854 was already in production: a revolver using the new self-contained metallic cartridges.

Lefaucheux Model 1854 revolver

The Lefaucheux Model 1854 embodies the essential arrangement of a modern revolver – but appeared before the Rollin White patent.

In the USA, things weren’t quite so up-to-date, and revolvers used loose black powder. The owner of a revolver had to pour powder into each of the cylinder mouths, ram a bullet into place, and fit a percussion cap onto the rear of each cylinder cavity. The revolver gave you several rapid shots… but after that you had a fiddly job on your hands.

Samuel Colt also held some patents. Years earlier, he’d figured out how to index the cylinders of a revolver so that a fresh one was presented after each shot, based in part upon a mechanism that he’d seen used for a ship’s wheel. Colt’s patents were set to expire in 1857, however, and this led others to design revolvers of their own.

Illustration from Colt’s 1836 patent for a “Revolving gun”

Illustration from Colt’s 1836 patent for a “Revolving gun”

Among them were two partners whose names might be familiar: Horace Smith and Daniel Baird Wesson. They’d worked together before, and as Colt’s patent expiry loomed, Wesson was developing a new cartridge revolver. His research turned up Rollin White’s bizarre patent, and some potentially bad news: the “bored-through cylinder” was protected for years to come.

Smith and Wesson approached Rollin White, and entered into an agreement with him: White would be paid a royalty of 25 cents for every revolver they produced. In return, White granted them exclusivity, and undertook to defend the patent against infringement. Smith and Wesson moved fast: on the day that the key Colt patent expired, their workshops started volume production of their “Model 1”.

While it was in effect, patent 12,648 forced manufacturers other than Smith and Wesson to come up with some of the strangest handguns of the 19th century. There were tapered cartridges that loaded from the front of the cylinder; there were side-loading cylinders; there was a cheeky “dual ignition cylinder” that featured screw-in inserts for old-style percussion caps… that you promptly unscrewed, leaving you with what was effectively a “bored-through cylinder” that would accommodate cartridges.

Plant’s Manufacturing Company Front-Loading Army Revolver

Plant’s Manufacturing Company front-loading revolver. The funny little ‘bolt action’ is used to eject spent cartridges, forwards.

 

Brooklyn Firearms’ “Slocum” side-loading cartridge revolver

Close-up of the Brooklyn Firearms’ “Slocum” side-loading cartridge revolver: every chamber has its own sliding panel. The side-loading cylinder would reappear a century later with the heroically ugly Dardick 1100

 

James Reid Model No. 4 Revolver with a “Dual Ignition” cylinder

James Reid Model No. 4 Revolver with a “Dual Ignition” cylinder – cleverly circumventing the Rollin White Patent

Rollin White ought to have made out like a bandit: a 25 cent royalty represented a considerable chunk of the profit on a handgun that sold for $12.75 – not bad pay considering that he should never have been granted the license. In reality, White was kept busy with expensive lawsuits, and although the courts usually found in his favour, Smith and Wesson profited far more than the patent-holder. In an application to extend the patent on the grounds that he had not been fairly compensated, White reported that he had made $71,000 while Smith and Wesson earned over $1 million. As ‘An act for the relief of Rollin White’ the bill went clear through the senate – before being vetoed by President Ulysses S. Grant in January 1870. The patent had caused considerable inconvenience to those working to arm the forces of the Union during the American Civil War, and the former Commanding General of the United States Army wasn’t about to let that go.

Rollin White, not exactly a patent troll but certainly one of the more disruptive unsuccessful inventors of the 19th century, fell into bankruptcy… although ultimately he did somewhat better in the sewing machine business.

The patent was gone, but the lesson in how not to license intellectual property remains true to this day.

The Gaseous State

The question that I’ve been pondering this week: what if existing models of the supply chain are outdated, and a whole new dimension is required? We speak of workflow, liquidity, pooling of resources… but what if commerce no longer resembles a liquid, but a gas?

A liquid sloshes about, and finds its lowest possible level. We’ve seen that: work gravitates to the place where it’s cheapest (and where regulation and taxation are the least onerous)… but that’s only half the story. A gas expands until it fills every nook and cranny: and it keeps on pushing until the pressure is equal throughout the system.

This is the evolutionary change in the modern-day supply chain. From solid (we expect things to stay put, and we expect to do things the way we’ve always done them) to liquid (everything takes the path of least resistance and flows downhill) to gas, and the ‘new normal’ that everything is everywhere. Instant gratification, same-day delivery, and so on.

The future is... more energetic.

The future is… more energetic.

The change isn’t just a new challenge wrought by new expectations on the demand side, though: the fulfilment paradigm has also changed. New actors participate in the supply chain now, while old ones take on different and expanded roles.

The service sector is being shaken up by disruptive changes. People with a spare room in their home now use Airbnb to compete directly with the conventional providers of short-stay accommodation. People with a vehicle and time on their hands sign up with Uber, offering a service comparable to taxis, on a casual basis.

Manufacturing businesses aren’t safe from disruption of this kind. What’s to stop a manufacturer from selling idle machine time to anybody that can benefit from it? Twenty-five years ago, Prestige Garden Furniture of Bolton were making parts for the Jaguar cars that competed at Le Mans… with good data exchange formats and a growing list of successful collaborations, this sort of thing is only going to increase. Add in ‘the cloud’ and the notion that businesses can tender for work on a case-by-case basis, and the commercial landscape begins to look very different.

On the retail side, who’s to say that the next thing you buy will come from a conventional source? In some applications, a ‘previously enjoyed’ product might be just what the customer needs, simultaneously shielding them from tax and depreciation, and allowing them to feel better about their environmental impact… and in eBay citizens (and businesses) have an excellent marketplace in which to buy or sell with some confidence that prices are fair.

Finance has gone crowdsourced, too. Where entrepreneurs once had to meet with the bank manager, Kickstarter offers a way to fund everything from movies to gadgets, while peer-to-peer loans allow borrowers access to credit and give savers a decent return on investment… with no high street bank in sight.

This is the all-pervasive commerce of the future: where a vastly expanded pool of casual or unconventional actors provide additional capability. Ignore them all and go with old-style formal relationships if you must, but understand that there are a whole lot of other people out there who want to get involved – and might end up working for the opposition. Done well, the coordination of a set of such contributions could be a powerful strategic differentiator because there’s an army of people who could play a part, in every city.

What triggered the change that turned the liquid of old-style commerce into an all-pervasive gas?

Microwaves.

The cellphone changed everything. The Internet made a big change, for sure, but it was mobile that really let the genie out of the bottle. Once calls were make to a person rather than a place, a plumber no longer needed a relative staying at home to take calls and make appointments. Cutting out the ‘receptionist-at-home’ role (and there must have been many thousands of such people) meant they could take on paid work elsewhere. Mobile ’phones also meant a farmer would know if today was the right day to harvest his vegetable crop – and could perhaps secure a price with a buyer, instead of being at the mercy of a middleman. That same mobile telephone allows ride-sharing, live translation services, paperless ticketing and much more.

In my family, when we send holiday postcards, we don’t start by buying a postcard: we use our own photo, uploaded with an accompanying message to a print-on-demand firm who create the card and put it straight into the post. In effect we have become actors in our own supply chain, replacing the professional photographer who formerly earned royalties on their images. We’ve eliminated the foreign leg of the postal service, too: never again will we queue in the bureau de poste and request “un timbre pour l’Angleterre”… and the likelihood that the resulting card will be delivered by the Royal Mail is declining, too: there are so many others who could bid for the contract.

The world has changed, and the lesson to be learned here is not to be the old-style incumbent, selling pre-printed postcards in a digital age. Like any paradigm shift, there will be winners and losers, and the first step towards becoming a winner is to be aware that the shift is underway. The future is digital, no doubt, but it’s also amorphous, chaotic… and gaseous.