The US complains that others steal its technology, but America was once a tech pirate itself

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Hills: In the eyes of the US, China doesn't always set an example. In fact, the US often complains that China, and some other nations, steal US technology. But in the early days of the United States, the shoe was apparently on the other foot. We're going to take a look at America's era of technology piracy with our resident history buff, Chris Woolf. Chris, give us an example. Christopher Woolf: Well, one example, Carol, is a guy called Andrew Mitchell who was sent to the UK in 1787 to try and acquire textile technology. Making clothes is the cash cow of the late 18th century. The Brits were way ahead in technological innovation and America wanted a slice of the pie. Hills: So who sent him? Woolf: A guy called Tench Coxe, who was a colleague of Alexander Hamilton, who was the Secretary of Treasury. Most of the American enterprise at that time was privately driven but state sponsored in the way that Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, had positioned America, for example, to have a patent law and to give dubious patents to any immigrants who might come in with technology and they would take ownership of the ideas that they'd stolen pretty much and would get a US patent for it so that they could profit. It was one of the ways they would try and lure immigrants into the country with technology. Hills: Was Andrew Mitchell successful? Woolf: He succeeded insofar as he got drawings, he got models of various carding machines, which were one of the processes in the textile industry that the Brits were ahead on, but he was caught trying to get on a ship. His trunk was impounded and he had to flee for his life and ended up running to Copenhagen. Hills: So it was an attempt at industrial piracy that failed. Woolf: Correct. The Brits were really mad. They were really intense - the early Republic, and they had very stiff laws against immigration of skilled workers and to try and prosecute anybody who was caught trying to solicit illegal immigrants or to steal technology. Hills: Any successful attempts by the US to steal industrial technology? Woolf: Yes. I think the most famous one would be Francis Cabot Lowell, a familiar name in Massachusetts, who spent a couple of years in England studying the textile industry and committed to memory everything he had seen. Then with help with a clockmaker in Wolfram, he started rebuilding these machines that he had memorized and they set up one of the first textile weaving mills in Wolfram. They then eventually got together with some other Boston businessmen and founded the city of Lowell just to make clothes. Hills: Did the Brits ever find out that their technology had been stolen? Woolf: Yes, they were generally protesting all the time. In fact, the British Consul in Philadelphia once bought four carding machines - the guys had managed to smuggle them out but they were happier to sell them at a profit again to the British Consul, who shipped them back to the UK to try and to stop the technological flow. Hills: What was the point of all of this? Woolf: It's kind of like the Chinese today. They say it's national security. We needed an industrial base to make America strong and we also needed a strong capital base. Hamilton had this great idea, critics will say he just wanted to make his friends rich; he argues that he had this vision of trying to create a capitalist class in the new US that could fund major manufacturing projects like this and take the country forward. Hills: Pretty interesting. Chris Woolf with this week's World That Was. Thanks so much Chris. Woolf: You're welcome Carol.