The ship carrying Francis Cabot Lowell and his family home from England in the summer of 1812 was intercepted by a British war squadron, which held the passengers and crew for some days at the British base at Halifax, Canada. Lowell's baggage was subject to several intensive searches, for his captors had been warned that he may have stolen designs for power textile weaving machinery, a serious crime in England. Lowell, indeed, had done just that -- but, aware of the risk, had committed the designs to memory.
The British rarely accorded outsiders the privilege of touring their cotton plants. But Lowell was a leading Boston merchant who imported a great deal of British cloth and had solid relations with his British counterparts. One can imagine him on one of his tours, feigning languid disinterest even as he diligently filed away details on gearing and loom speeds. By the gentlemanly codes of the day, it seems dishonorable.
Today, it's China that is the rising power, and the United States that is the hegemon wary of the young upstart. To China, the United States appears much as Great Britain did to Americans two centuries ago. The U.S. Navy is an intrusive presence on its coasts, while U.S. support for Taiwan parallels British sympathies for southern separatists. Most threatening for Beijing is the appeal of America's raucous democracy for China's rising masses.
The Chinese today are as determined as 19th-century Americans were to achieve economic parity with their rival, and like early Americans, will steal all the technology they can. The important difference is that modern documentation standards make theft much more rewarding. Any drawings Lowell purloined would have been mostly dimensionless and only approximately accurate. (He was fortunate that Paul Moody, the genius mechanic who designed and built his plants, was also a skilled weaver.) In the mid 19th century, Americans were also desperate to replicate Britain's famed Sheffield steel, by common consent the world's finest. But the best Sheffield craftsmen the United States could buy failed to replicate it. (The key, which even the British had not guessed, was the local clay used in the heating vessels.)
Today, Chinese espionage is widely assumed to have targeted virtually all big American technology companies. A long list of firms, including Apple, Boeing, Dow Chemical, Dupont, Ford, Motorola, Northrup Grumman, and General Motors, have pursued successful criminal actions against Chinese moles and other agents.
Back in 1812, finished cotton textiles dominated British exports, accounting for about half of all trade revenues, the fruit of a half century of progress in mechanized mass production. Proportionate to GDP, the industry was about three times the size of the entire U.S. automobile sector today. High-speed textile manufacture was a highly advanced technology for its era, and Great Britain was as sensitive about sharing it as the United States is with advanced software and microprocessor breakthroughs. The British parliament legislated severe sanctions for transferring trade secrets, even prohibiting the emigration of skilled textile workers or machinists.
But the Americans had no respect for British intellectual property protections. They had fought for independence to escape the mother country's suffocating economic restrictions. In their eyes, British technology barriers were a pseudo-colonial ploy to force the United States to serve as a ready source of raw materials and as a captive market for low-end manufactures. While the first U.S. patent act, in 1790, specified that "any person or persons" could file a patent, it was changed in 1793 to make clear that only U.S. citizens could claim U.S. patent protection.