When steam first began to pump and wheels go round at so many revolutions per minute, what are called business habits were intended to make the life of man run in harmony with the steam engine, and his movement rival the train in punctuality… George William Russell


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At one end of the chain is a Greek scientist from antiquity and at the other end is a businessman. The science was certainly not new to the eighteenth-century. What was new was the concept of intellectual property and the idea that science could be taken out of the common domain, turned into private property through legal contrivance and then be bought, sold and applied at a profit. Rosen is entirely correct that technology has seen large increases since the advent of patent law – the net results judgement is still pending – and this is an excellent book.

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The most powerful idea in the world : a story of steam, industry, and invention  William Rosen  New York : Random House, c 2010  Hardcover. 1st ed., later printing. xxv, 370 p. : ill. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG 

If all measures of human technological advancement in the last hundred centuries were plotted on a graph Rosen maintains they would show an almost perfectly flat line – until the eighteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution would cause the line to shoot straight up, beginning an almost uninterrupted march of progress.

Rosen tells the story of the men responsible for the Industrial Revolution and the machine that drove it – the steam engine. In the process he tackles the question that has obsessed historians ever since: What made the eighteenth-century such fertile soil for inventors? Rosen’s answer focuses on a simple notion that had become enshrined in British law the century before: that people had the right to own and profit from their ideas.

The result was a period of frantic innovation revolving particularly around the promise of steam power. Rosen traces the steam engine’s history from its early days as a clumsy but sturdy machine, to its coming-of-age driving the wheels of mills and factories, to its maturity as a transporter for people and freight by rail and by sea.


Along the way we enter the minds of such inventors as Thomas Newcomen and James Watt, scientists including Robert Boyle and Joseph Black, and philosophers John Locke and Adam Smith – all of whose insights, tenacity, and ideas transformed first a nation and then the world.

An amazing account of how inventors first came to own and profit from their ideas and how invention itself springs forth from logic and imagination. ROCKET was the fortuitously-named train that inaugurated steam locomotion in 1829, jump-starting two centuries of mass transportation. As  Rosen reveals, it was the product of centuries of scientific and industrial discovery. From inventor Heron of Alexandria in 60 AD to James Watt, the physicist whose ‘separate condenser’ was central to the development of steam power, to businessman Matthew Boulton, who envisioned whole factories powered with Watt’s engines all those who made possible the long ride towards the Industrial Revolution are brought to unforgettable life. But crucial to their contributions are other characters whose concepts allowed their inventions to flourish: John Locke, who conceived of what we now know as ‘intellectual property’, and Edward Coke, whose work led to the patent system.

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