Book Review: The Most Powerful Idea in the World

I listened to The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention (William Rosen, 2010) as an audiobook, and so wasn’t able to pay as much attention as I would have reading it in print. Overall it was quite good, though I wasn’t able to absorb the details of how early steam engines worked — from prior experience just reading might not have done it either, I seem to need to watch illustrated videos to figure out what’s going on with mechanical inventions.

The “most powerful idea” in question is that of intellectual property, and the book traces the dual history of steam engines, which had previously been invented by mechanical entertainers in ancient Greece, with similar preliminary discoveries in medieval China — and of patent law, which had seen a significant shift in English common law that paved the way for the invention boom that was to follow. Prior to a significant monopoly case that occurred in 16th Century England, patents — exclusive rights to sell specific products or use certain techniques — had been predicated not on innovation, but on royal favor. When that changed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, so to did the incentives around invention. Up until the 17th Century in England, and 18th or 19th in other areas of Europe, science and invention were almost exclusively the province of wealthy landholders (and the occasional innovator who had secured their patronage), since only they had the time, energy, education, and experimental materials available to devote to projects without any monetary return. That began to change with the promise of patents on the basis of innovation, rather than political favor.

Several interwoven threads of innovation were pursued through the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in England and (eventually) America — the main ones being steam, coal, iron, and textiles. The Most Powerful Idea focuses the most attention on steam, but spends at least a chapter on each of the other innovations that kick started the Industrial Revolution and the inventors who drove them.

Steam power, which spent most of a century at only one to two percent efficiency, first became economically useful as a way to pump water out of coal mines. The fuel source was readily available, and water very heavy, making it more practical to use the newly invented steam pump rather than animal power, even with the low efficiency and high patent holder fees. Much early engineering was done by Scottish tradesmen who had become educated and skilled in metalworking, but dispossessed of land after being forced out of the Highlands in the wake of the Jacobite Rebellion (1754). The book spends a substantial amount of time on the history of James Watt, who made substantial improvements to the original Newcomen steam engine, while supporting himself as a surveyor.

Automated engines and pumps, meanwhile, needed fairly high quality iron, which in turn needed hotter fires than raw coal was able to provide. It had long been smelted with charcoal, but war had driven the demand for high quality iron (preferably steel, but that couldn’t be manufactured at scale yet) past the speed at which forests were able to re-grow. That was solved by the discovery that coke, which can be produced from coal in a way analogous to how charcoal is produced from partially burnt wood, can be used for purifying iron.

At the same time, textile artisans had invented the flying shuttle, allowing weavers to make much wider cloth, and the spinning jenny, allowing spinners to spin multiple skeins of yarn at the same time. The spinning jenny in turn laid the groundwork for automated spinning techniques using water mills, then later steam power. This initiated a much higher demand for cotton, which would eventually be supplied by plantations in India and America.

The book concludes with the placement of the first steam powered locomotive, which ran between Manchester and Liverpool starting in 1829.

Unlike Wendell Berry, Mr Rosen remains relatively neutral about the trade offs of the Industrial Revolution. The reader is left to supply their own conclusions on whether it was a good or bad thing that, for instance, people were suddenly able to afford much better clothes while England established a worldwide empire, at the expense of skilled spinners and weavers, slaves forced to hand pick cotton, increasingly deep coal mines, and rising pollution. That’s probably for the best — I’m not sure there actually is much use in deciding whether things that have already happened and can’t be repeated in the same way again were worth the costs or not.

The Most Powerful Idea in the World is a very decent, accessible historical pop-science book, and I would recommend it if you don’t know very much about the early Industrial Revolution or early engines, and would like someplace to begin.

Rating: 4/5

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