Nineteenth-Century Open Source

Shaker chairNear where we’re staying on vacation there is a small but excellent Shaker museum. As a historian who in part studies nineteenth-century religion, I know a bit about the Shakers, one of the more remarkable and unusual revival Christian sects. (Note to those wishing to create a new sect that flourishes: eschew celibacy, even if you do make amazing furniture.) It is easy to think of the Shakers as from another age (or perhaps world), living in massive “families” of 50 to 100 “brothers and sisters” and focusing on the simple life of agriculture and crafts (in addition to very serious and often ecstatic forms of worship). But the museum brings to life the Shakers’ less well-known technological sophistication. They were innovators of the first order, constantly refining the efficiency of their families’ production (the simple lines of Shaker furniture made them easier to clean, important when your dining room seats 100).

What really struck me was their patented technologies. That’s right, the sect occasionally took advantage of U.S. patent law. The Shaker family near us invented a massive, semi-automated washing machine, among other things. And what they did with their patents is most interesting. They patented these machines so that no one would steal the designs, and then they licensed the designs for free to other Shaker communities, which did the same in return with their innovations. Sound familiar?

[Photograph of a Shaker chair by chrisjfry.]

4 thoughts on “Nineteenth-Century Open Source

  1. Erik Hetzner

    This is interesting, but one of the most important aspects of free software is that it imposes no restrictions on WHO may use the software. I am sure that there are plenty within the community who would like to restrict the use of their code to, say, non-commercial purposes, or non-military, or governments which are not dictatorships, or their own religious community. But the fact that ANYBODY is free to use free software is one of the most essential freedoms that it provides. See: http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html

  2. Dan Cohen Post author

    A good point, Erik. The community-specific, limited aspect of this “freedom” or “openness” makes the Shakers’ case an imperfect historical precursor. I’ll have to do some more research on how they treated outsiders.

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