The Most Powerful Idea in the World

by William Rosen

This book is so beautifully written that it humbles me. I sigh sadly with the realization that I shall never be as good a writer as Mr. Rosen. Still, it serves to inspire me to try harder. 

The book is ostensibly about the development of steam engines in the Industrial Revolution. Mr. Rosen traces the idea of steam power from Hero of Alexandria’s toy through early efforts to understand atmospheric pressure and the vacuum, onto Newcomen’s first practical steam engine, Watt’s dramatic improvements, and more improvements after Watt. His focus is on the men who contributed to the process, presenting their biographies in lively and well-researched tales. But these biographies are merely the vehicle Mr. Rosen uses to offer some profound ideas about the notion of modernity.

First, he notes that almost all the progress came not from the educated upper crust but from artisans and tinkerers of lower social rank. There were thousands of these homebrew hobbyists, fiddling around with spare parts using their spare time. They were the Industrial Revolution’s precursors to the modern “two guys in a garage” who put together some earth-shattering new technology. Just like the modern versions, the successful ones got filthy rich. Just like the modern versions, there were thousands of losers who never amounted to anything. And there were plenty of people between the two extremes who made small but valuable contributions to the process.

Some people who invented solid improvements to the steam engine were cheated of their due rewards; some people got filthy rich on other people’s ideas. The inventors who got rich shared a common trait: they created a whole portfolio of inventions. Some inventions made them rich, some equally good inventions got them nothing, but they were so prolific that they still enjoyed the benefits of their work.

Practice led theory in steam engine technology. The advances were all made by guys screwing around with the technology, guys who worked with their hands, who understood the technology at an instinctive rather than a cognitive level. Theory didn’t catch up with practice until Sadi Carnot figured out the physics of steam engines around 1850 – long after the Industrial Revolution had been completed. And Carnot’s studies of steam engines opened up a new field of physics: thermodynamics. 

The most successful inventor of the Industrial Revolution was James Watt, but his success was based on teaming up with Matthew Boulton. Watt was the technical guy, Boulton was the business guy. This pairing was just like Wozniak & Jobs of Apple, or Gates & Allen of Microsoft. And it was just as successful. There were, of course, some individuals who combined both technical savvy with business nous, but these were rare birds. 

So, what was "the most powerful idea in the world”? Mr. Rosen doesn’t explicitly say until the very last sentence in the book, by which time the reader has already figured it out for himself: that ideas are valuable property and should be assignable to their creators. This concept was made explicit by Sir Edward Coke (pronounced ‘cook’), one of the most important legal theorists in history. This guy died in 1634, a century before the Industrial Revolution, but he did more to make it happen than anybody else, because he formulated the idea of the patent. The word ‘patent’ had been used previously to describe legal monopolies granted by monarchs to individuals as a reward for some service rendered. But Coke expanded the idea considerably. He saw the patent not as a gift from a monarch, but as a legal status earned by defined legal rules. He laid down the basic precept that an invention had to be original, useful, and demonstrable in order to be granted a temporary monopoly. This was the means by which ideas were established as personal property. And it was the driving force behind the Industrial Revolution.

Without patent protection, James Watt would not have gone to all the trouble to make his steam engine into a practical device. As you probably already know, Watt’s basic discovery was made while repairing a toy demonstration version of a Newcomen steam engine. He realized that condensing the steam separately from the main cylinder would greatly improve the engine’s efficiency. But it was a long way from that realization to a practical engine. Watt had to test hundreds of details regarding materials and methods to get it all into a package that could actually be used outside the lab. He would not have gone to the trouble but for the promise of vast rewards coming from patent protection. 

I do have a complaint about the book: Mr. Rosen couldn’t resist the temptation to delve into the technical details of steam engine technology, but he didn’t provide enough explanation to make those details comprehensible. This is most evident in his failure to provide a single drawing showing the mechanisms he describes. Here’s an example of his heroic attempts to explain a mechanism without the use of a diagram:

“ elevator — actually wooden cups affixed to belts — lifted the unmilled grains of wheat onto a conveyor belt which, in turn, was driven by a rod with lands cut into it; effectively a horizontal screw. The belt then pushed the wheat through the millstones into a hopper where a mechanical rake alternately stirred and sifted the flour. And once again a single rotating shaft synchronized all the operations.”

I cannot for the life of me figure out how this device works. Without an illustrative diagram, it is impossible to understand its operation. Mr. Rosen did a half-ass job here: he should have either explained the device properly, with a diagram, or cut out the description altogether. This failure crops up dozens of times throughout the book, and was intensely frustrating. 

Nevertheless, I give this book my highest accolades, and enthusiastically recommend it. It can be appreciated by just about any reader. 

I conclude with one of the most interesting factoids from the book: the focal point of the Industrial Revolution was the Severn Valley, with the cities of Manchester and Liverpool. The financial driving force was the industrialization of cloth-making, which until the Industrial Revolution was a tedious manual task; the machines of the Industrial Revolution drove down the cost of making cloth by orders of magnitude, and English cloth was sold the world over. Mr. Rosen writes:

“The two cities were now producing more wealth in a year than the entire Roman Empire could in a century.”