William Rosen’s The Most Powerful Idea in the World tells the story of how steam power became the catalyst for England’s Industrial Revolution. And a convoluted tale it is, involving the country’s wealth of natural resources (coal, iron, copper and water for powering machines and transporting goods), the comparatively high literacy rate that enabled common folk to educate themselves in science and technology, a patent system that protected the rights of inventors and gave them economic incentive to both create and refine devices, and a population large and wealthy enough to form a profitable market for products the new industries turned out.

Rosen marks the start of the “steam revolution” with Thomas Newcomen’s construction of a practical steam engine in 1712 and sees its culmination in the successful trial run of George and Robert Stephenson’s steam locomotive, Rocket, in 1829. Between these temporal poles, Rosen sketches in the life stories and explains the interlocking mechanical and social contributions of dozens of luminaries, among them James Watt, Matthew Boulton, John Smeaton and Isambard Brunel.

Central to Rosen’s account is his amply demonstrated thesis that “inventions don’t just solve problems; they create new ones, which demand—and inspire—other inventions.” He struggles valiantly, if not always successfully, to assay why so much practical knowledge boiled up and was put to use in England in such a short period of time, rather than in, say, France or China. An immensely readable and droll stylist, Rosen even leavens his footnotes with humor. In a passing reference to Francis Bacon, he observes, “It is impossible to write about Bacon without mentioning Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, and the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Consider them mentioned.” No idolater he.


 

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