The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A book review by Bob Morris

The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention
William Rosen
Random House (2010)

Note: In an article written for the Wall Street Journal (January 26, 2013), Bill Gates explains why he thinks this book is one of the most important written in recent years. I agree, as the following review indicates.

Who knew that when the Royal Patent Office in London in 1698 issued a patent for “Raising Water by the Impellent Force of Fire” (the idea to which the title of this book refers) it would set in motion a chain of events whose impact was unprecedented in human history? The scope and depth of William Rosen’s narrative embrace a number of separate but interdependent disciplines that include law, natural science, economics, anthropology, history (i.e. of people, societies, events, and ideas), mathematics, physics, and politics. I cannot recall a non-fiction book I have read in recent years that I enjoyed more than this one. There are so many reasons. Where to begin?

Here are three. First, I greatly appreciate the scope and depth of Rosen’s coverage not only of a subject (the development of steam-powered machines) but of an entire era prior to and throughout the Industrial Revolution. His narrative tells a riveting story, replete with a cast of memorable characters such as Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, James Watt, Abraham Darby, Richard Arkwright, George Stephenson and son Robert, and John Allen and Charles Porter. If most/all of those names are unfamiliar, all the more reason to read this book.) Rosen’s story also as dramatic conflicts, plot developments on multiple levels and in multiple areas, and a brilliant analysis of an on-going process of industrial innovation in the 19th century, sustained failure-driven discovery.

I also appreciate Rosen masterful explanation of the interdependence of steam-powered machines with coal, iron, and cotton. Machines made of iron pumped water out of coal mines to produce the fuel the machines needed to transport it to steam-power ships so they could transport cotton that would finance the entire enterprise. There are passages in the narrative when key multi-disciplinary issues embrace history, economics, anthropology, sociology, history, psychology, and commerce.

My third reason is personal: Prior to reading this book, I knew almost nothing about – nor had much (if any) interest in – most of the subjects that Rosen discusses with eloquent rigor. I had the same reaction when reading two of Steven Johnson’s books, The Ghost Map (2006) and The Invention of Air (2008). I am grateful to both Rosen and Johnson for writing books that are, for me, magic carpets that transport me back in time to experience (albeit vicariously) not only what would be otherwise be inaccessible but also, more to the point, to experience what would otherwise be unknown to me.

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