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Sunday Book Review: Torpedo

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Katherine Epstein’s new book “Torpedo: Inventing the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States and Great Britain” is about two things.  First, it’s about the torpedo, including both the struggles that several companies went through in the United States and the United Kingdom in manufacturing early torpedoes, and the doctrinal turmoil that the development of the torpedo generated in both the United States Navy and the Royal Navy.

Second, Torpedo is about the development of the legal, bureaucratic, and technical foundations of the modern military industrial complex.  Building on the work of other theorists, Epstein argues that the real foundations of the MIC lay in naval procurement at the end of the nineteenth century.  The industrial demands on naval warfare, both in terms of capital intensive production and capital intensive research, required a large peace-time commitment on the part of the government.  The state and private industry could equip armies much more quickly than they could equip navies or (eventually) air forces.

This meant developing novel forms of public-private interaction.  In particular, to acquire advanced technology the state could no longer rely on private firms using their own capital to develop off-the-shelf products that the military could choose to purchase.  The capital requirement of innovation, combined with the fact that defense firms had a limited number of customers, meant that firms would only pursue innovation if assured that their investment would pay off.  This meant that the state would have to pre-emptively invest in private innovation, whether through direct grants or through guaranteed purchase contracts.

This, in turn, created a complex set of intellectual property problems.  The private firms that developed the torpedoes wanted to own the intellectual property associated with that technology, or at least to be fairly compensated for their investment.  This meant selling either to the United States or to some foreign government.  The government, on the other hand, felt that its investment in the projects meant that it should share (at least) in the ownership of the intellectual property. The government also worried about the export of advanced technology and advanced intellectual property to foreign buyers.  This set the stage for brutal IP litigation between the US government and several private firms, both foreign and domestic.  That the government and the firms needed each other served to make the fighting even more vicious.

The US systems of intellectual property and export control were unprepared for this development.  The US tried to rely on the 1799 Logan Act (meant to prevent private individuals from conducting US foreign policy) in order to prevent US firms from exporting torpedoes abroad. Similarly, US patent law struggled with the quandaries associated with joint public-private development of IP.  In the United Kingdom, which already had a system of export controls and secret patents, this process ran far more smoothly.

On the organizational and doctrinal side, Epstein points out that while we would expect the USN, as the smaller and less tradition-bound of the two navies, would focus on a “disruptive” innovation like the torpedo, in reality the Royal Navy pushed farther and faster on torpedo doctrine and technology than any of its competitors. In contrast to the hidebound institution often depicted in popular history, the early 1900s were a period of intellectual ferment in the RN, with questions of fleet design and ship construction hotly debated between several factions.  The torpedo, understood by many as a weapon with war-winning potential, loomed large for most of these factions.

The RN also had better access to research and training resources than the USN, which allowed it both to formulate doctrine more effectively, and to feed experiential knowledge back into the system of technology development. Consequently, Epstein argues that the conventional understanding of the relationship between disruptive military innovation and established military power is wrong; the most advanced military organizations typically have the greatest means not only to pursue disruptive innovation, but also to evaluate the implications of such innovation.

This is a good book; it’s an interesting book, and it breaks new ground on the role of intellectual property law and the defense industry while also contributing to the literature on military organizations and innovation. But this book ends up being about two different things; the development of naval doctrine in the early twentieth century in the RN and the USN, and the development of modern intellectual property law.  There are some people that are interested in both of these things (me!), but that number is extremely limited. Many readers are going to find particular parts of the story intensely interesting, but will skip some of the other chapters.  For my own part, I found the intellectual property angle much more interesting than the naval doctrine angle, although that’s likely because of the nature of my current project.

I can heartily recommend Torpedo, and indeed I suspect that scholars of the history of the modern military industrial complex will find it indispensible.  At the same time, the transition between the two foci will be a struggle for a lot of readers.

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