MIT Patent Policy, 1932-1946: Historical precedents in university-industry technology transfer

Elliot A Fishman, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation examines the history of MIT's Patent Policy in its formative era, roughly 1932 through 1946. It was during this period that MIT administrators conceived policies and established precedents to shape a practice recognizable today as deliberate technology transfer. MIT was one of the first American universities to license patents. Over time, the Institute also became one of the most prolific centers of such activity, and its practices were widely emulated. By tracing the motivations behind MIT's patent policy, insight is sought not only on MIT's history, but more generally on the overall development of economic relationships between American universities and industry. Many contemporary assumptions about the way business and academia should interact are rooted in MIT's early experience. It will be argued that MIT's patent policy was not conceived by any individual, nor was the policy deduced with a consistent economic rationale. Instead, the evolving policy can be seen as a highly complex social phenomena, in which disparate communities of businessmen and scientists, administrators and technologists, struggled to exploit particular professional interests. Social history, rather than economic history, is the appropriate interpretive mode. The aspirations of numerous faculty entrepreneurs were mediated in highly politicized patent committee. Committee debates centered on the distribution of equity in patents, on the terms of licenses, and on public relations concerns. Over time, the Patent Committee began discussing potential revenues and the financial risks of litigation. MIT's patent policy was further influenced by Research Corporation, a non-profit patent agent with close ties to MIT. Among the entrepreneurial faculty discussed are Nicholas Milas, Wilmer Barrow, Robert Van de Graaff, John Trump, and C. Hawely Cartwright. The premise of this dissertation is that a fundamental transmogrification occurred: In 1931, MIT's interest in patents was essentially passive. After a period of about 15 years, those passive interests were transformed into an enthusiastic culture of technology transfer. Administrative practices for technology transfer in 1946 conceptually resemble those of today.

Subject Area

Science history|Economic history

Recommended Citation

Fishman, Elliot A, "MIT Patent Policy, 1932-1946: Historical precedents in university-industry technology transfer" (1996). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9627919.