CRF Blog

Spy vs. Spy

by Bill Hayes

In Spy vs. Spy for the New Yorker, James Surowiecki looks at industrial spying today and the role it played when in our own nation’s development.

“The United States emerged as the world’s industrial leader by illicitly appropriating mechanical and scientific innovations from Europe,” the historian Doron Ben-Atar observes in his book “Trade Secrets.” Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, American industrial spies roamed the British Isles, seeking not just new machines but skilled workers who could run and maintain those machines. One of these artisans was Samuel Slater, often called “the father of the American industrial revolution.” He emigrated here in 1789, posing as a farmhand and bringing with him an intimate knowledge of the Arkwright spinning frames that had transformed textile production in England, and he set up the first water-powered textile mill in the U.S. Two decades later, the American businessman Francis Cabot Lowell talked his way into a number of British mills, and memorized the plans to the Cartwright power loom. When he returned home, he built his own version of the loom, and became the most successful industrialist of his time.

The American government often encouraged such piracy. [more]