As Legislators Ponder Non-Compete Agreements, A Look at Massachusetts’ Innovation History

10/7/09Follow @rowe

This article was written with Geoff Mamlet.

Today, some of our legislators will hold a hearing at the State House to discuss changes in Massachusetts’ non-compete laws. They would do well to heed our own past as an open employment state.

In the mid-1780s, Samuel Slater was a young apprentice in England working for the men who created the world’s first mass production system: a system which produced thread from cotton. At the time, Britain was intent on protecting its technology, and it was illegal for British citizens to emigrate and take with them the knowledge of British technology. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Slater.

The American textile industry was desperate for a way to compete against the British. They offered a bounty of $100 to people willing to import British technical knowledge. “For which man will bring us English models, will be given monetary funds for his reward.”

Slater, at the end of his apprenticeship, emigrated to the US, taking with him his knowledge of the British mill technology. Arriving in Beverly, Massachusetts, Slater used his skill to build there the first cotton mill in America. He went on to produce numerous improvements to the British designs.

The innovations introduced by Slater are recognized as having kicked off the industrial revolution in America, and he became known as its father. By 1810, there were 50 mills spinning cotton into yarn or thread. By 1815, there were 140 mills within 30 miles of Providence alone, with 26,000 people on the payroll.

The freedom Slater had in Massachusetts to practice his trade, despite restrictions elsewhere, made our region the center of a technology boom that changed the world.

We would like to leave our legislators with this thought: today’s Massachusetts non-compete law does not prevent a young person from following in Slater’s footsteps. It merely encourages that young person to do so in California. Surely this is short-sighted.

Xconomist Tim Rowe is Founder and CEO of Cambridge Innovation Center. Follow @rowe

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