Charles Darrow’s Monopoly

Charles DarrowOn this day in 1889, Charles Darrow was born. He is known for having invented the game Monopoly. The problem is that he didn’t. He did, however, get a government provided monopoly to sell the game: US Patent 2,026,082. This is ironic, right? A depression era game based upon the idea that capitalism is an unjust system for the distribution of resources was effectively stolen from its actual creators using the tools of the oligarchs.

In 1903, Elizabeth Magie developed The Landlord’s Game, which was designed to show the ill effects of monopolies. She self-published the game and it became rather popular. It was used by college professors to teach about monopolies and was even adapted into a Scottish game. After Parker Brothers released Monopoly in 1935, Magie was publicly critical of it. Parker Brothers had previously published her games, so apparently in a bid to shut her up, they published three more of her games, including The Landlord’s Game.

It’s important to remember that The Landlord’s Game is not Monopoly. How it became it is an interesting example of sociology. The Landlord’s Game was popular enough that people started making their own versions of the game. This led to the game Finance which was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s. (Parker Brothers eventually bought it and sold it into the 1960s.) Eventually, it made its way back to the east cost. One version, taught to Darrow by Charles Todd was localized for Atlantic City. This was Monopoly, and it is the game (including the misspelling of Marven Gardens) that Darrow patented.

Wikipedia notes, “Darrow was later promoted as the sole inventor of the game, though later research has shown that Magie, Jesse Raiford, Ruth Hoskins, Louis and Ferdinand Thun, and Daniel Layman, among others, were collectively responsible for virtually all of game’s significant elements.” But that isn’t to say that Darrow was just a thief. He packaged the game well, including hiring a graphic artists to jazz up the game with things like the Water Works image. There is something to be said for that.

The problem, of course, is that the system we have is not fundamental to the idea of capitalism. In fact, I think it is clear that it is a distortion of capitalism. The fact that Darrow was able to get a patent on the work of others, shows a fundamental flaw in our intellectual property law. But even if Darrow had added something substantially new to the work of the others (he didn’t), it doesn’t make sense for him to get all the reward. The fact that he does shows there is a very large random element in our economic system. And this does not create good economic incentives. But you already knew that—because you played Monopoly when you were a kid.

Happy birthday Charles Darrow!

2 thoughts on “Charles Darrow’s Monopoly

  1. “In 1903, Elizabeth Magie developed The Landlord’s Game, which was designed to show the ill effects of monopolies.”

    Specifically, it was meant to illustrate the economic theories of Henry George, who wrote about the deleterious effects of rentier monopolies under capitalism.

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