This is the first of a two-part interview of William Rosen who is an historian and writer as well as the author of the award-winning history Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe and the recently published The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. Previously, he was an editor and publisher at Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and the Free Press for nearly twenty-five years. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
Morris: Why do you think that steam power is “the most powerful idea in the world”?
Rosen: The word “powerful” has a bit of a double meaning. Steam wasn’t just the first technology for doing work that didn’t depend on either muscle, wind, or water – which, before the 18th century, were the only choices on offer for all of human history – but it was possible only because of an even more powerful (or, at least, consequential) idea: the recognition that ideas, in the form of legally protected patents, were themselves a kind of property
Morris: As you explain in the book, steam power can be traced back to the first century A.D. Why did it take so long (more than 1700 years) to develop engines to use that source of power?
Rosen: Steam engines, in the form of simple turbines used to operate toys and entertainments, date back to at least the 1st century AD. But transforming these amusements into something truly useful demanded a whole series of cultural, legal, and scientific developments, of which the most significant – OK: the most powerful – was the idea that inventors could benefit from the use of their inventions by others.
Morris: You cite T.S. Ashton’s short but indispensable history of the Industrial Revolution: “About 1760, a wave of gadgets swept over England.” You characterize steam power as the “hub” of all this activity. Please explain.
Rosen: The steam engine was reflexive, in a way that, for example, waterwheels were not. The first steam engines ran on coal – they still do – but they were originally built to pump the water out of the coal mines that provided their own fuel. By increasing the availability of coal, coal-powered engines became useful for other activities; coal, in the form of coke, was central to the growth of Britain’s iron foundries, which were built to supply the boilers for the steam engines that operated forges and blast furnaces. The first working steam locomotives were built to carry cotton, which traveled to the British Isles on steamships, and was spun into cloth by steam-powered mills.
Morris: Was there only one Industrial Revolution? Please explain.
Rosen: Many, probably most, histories, tend to distinguish between the “first” Industrial Revolution, which is conventionally dated from 1760 to 1820, and a second, beginning in the last quarter of the 19th century. However, the distinction is not only artificial (the 1760-1820 dates, for example, derive from an 1878 lecture in which the term first appeared…but since the ostensible subject of that lecture was the reign of George III, the dates of his time on the throne got conflated with the “industrial revolution”) but the opposite of enlightening. If, as I believe, the revolutionary character of the Industrial Revolution is that it marks the first sustained era of technological improvement in human history, then we’re still living in it today.
Morris: Was the Industrial Revolution in fact a revolution or a period of industrial evolution?
Rosen: The terms aren’t really mutually exclusive. I’m temperamentally cautious about applying the principles of Darwinian evolution by natural selection to anything but the biological world, but if you buy the notion, popularized by Niles Eldredge and the late Stephen Jay Gould, that evolution is really long periods of relative stasis interrupted by moments of dramatic change – “punctuated equilibrium” as it is known – then the Industrial Revolution is, by any measure, a revolutionary moment in a very long evolutionary history.
Morris: However the rapid growth and expansion of industrialization in the 19th century is characterized`, why did English-speaking people play such a major role?
Rosen: There are literally hundreds of different explanations for the preeminence of the “Anglosphere” (essentially Britain and America) in the history of industrialization, from the geographic (easy access to coal; navigable rivers) to the cultural (the greater “industriousness” of northern European Protestantism as opposed to southern European Catholicism, or Asian Confucianism) to the demographic (because of primogeniture, the propensity of the younger sons of England’s propertied classes to percolate downward to the artisan world, bringing good bourgeois values with them). None of them seems as persuasive as the development in Britain of a legal system that recognized the property rights of inventors in their inventions, thus offering them a powerful and enduring incentive not merely to create their own inventions, but to improve upon and compete with the inventions of others.
Morris: Although your book has been described as a “biography of a single invention,” my own opinion is that – invoking a metaphor or two — you explore a “galaxy” of inventions rather than only one “star.” Is that a fair assessment?
Rosen: You’ve caught me. The first working steam engines, it turns out, weren’t single inventions at all. They were, instead, as you point out, entire galaxies of inventions small and large: not just the headline creations like James Watt’s separate condenser, but linkages, valves, governors, boilers, cams, gears, and dozens more. Moreover, the engines were used to drive the machinery of the world’s first factories — mills for turning grain into flour, and cotton into yarn (and to weave that yarn into cloth) – which inspired still more inventions. They demanded of the iron industry inventions like puddling furnaces, iron lathes, and boring machines. And all of these depended on a family of other inventions: an entire world of instruments for precision measurement.
Morris: Here’s a follow-up question. What are “spillovers” and what is their relevance to the development of machines to produce steam power?
Rosen: The term is from Alfred Marshall, the economist who coined the term in the 1890s. Marshall hypothesized that his century’s unprecedented economic growth was due to a whole truckload of innovations whose benefits “spilled over” into the national economy soon after they had enriched the “personal” economy of their creators. This is one of the ways of understanding the bargain inherent in a patent system: An inventor can benefit from a valuable and novel idea (like a new kind of gear) for a given amount of time – the original British and American patents lasted fourteen years – after which it became public property. In fact, the benefits of the first steam engine innovations started spilling over long before fourteen years passed, since inventors were still able to examine and attempt to outdo them even during the patent term.
Morris: Please explain coal mining’s importance and significance.
Rosen: Coal was being mined for centuries before the steam revolution, though its use was pretty much restricted to space heating and – in a purified form known as coke – smelting.
Getting that coal meant removing the water from England’s mines; the first true steam engine, which was patented in 1698 by the engineer Thomas Savery, was christened by him “The Miner’s Friend.” (In fact, three-quarters of all patents for invention granted prior to the Savery engine were, one way or the other, mining innovations; 15% of the total were for drainage alone.)
If the demand for coal prompted the invention of the first steam engines, its supply fuelled their operation, and – even more importantly – drove their improvement: Without the need for coal, steam engine innovators had no yardstick to measure whether one design worked better than another. As James Watt himself put it, his mind “ran on making engines cheap as well as good”…that is, doing more work with less coal.
Morris: Why is it so tempting to see James Watt’s life “as the embodiment of the entire Industrial Revolution”? What do you think?
Rosen: The preconditions for the Industrial Revolution were: a) a new and improved way of understanding the natural world – the Scientific Revolution; b) the legal creation of a property right in ideas; and c) a culture that, for the first time in history, made heroes out of inventors.
And Watt was an inventor-and-a-half. He didn’t, of course, “invent the steam engine” (his most famous invention, the separate condenser, did double the amount of work it could do for a given amount of coal) but the enormous number of the innovations he did produce, by himself and with others – in addition to the separate condenser, they include the planetary gear, the “Watt linkage” (still used in half of today’s automobiles) and the double-acting engine – gives him a large claim on the title of the most productive inventor, at least before Thomas Edison.
In addition, he was simultaneously a scientist, able to understand and improve on the mathematics of Euler and the thermodynamics of Joseph Black (“everything,” in the recollection of Professor John Robison of Glasgow University, became “science in his hands”) and an artisan trained to the highest level of professional artistry in the same guild that counted John Harrison – inventor of the first marine chronometer and hero of Dava Sobel’s Longitude as a member.
Most important of all, for those who accept the notion that the distinctive character of the Industrial Revolution was the public recognition and legal sanction it gave to intellectual property, Watt is even more important, as his generation’s most active and articulate defender of the rights of inventors, famously observing that “an inventor’s life without patent is not worth living.” Which is why he became such a hero to subsequent generations of Britons that the statue of Watt in Westminster Abbey was the first ever to honor an inventor.
Morris: Please comment on Alfred North Whitehead’s suggestion that the most important invention of the Industrial Revolution was invention itself.
Rosen: Obviously, in its literal meaning the Whitehead aphorism is false: Humans have been inventing ever since they’ve been, well, human. Archimedes, Gutenberg, and Leonardo (to say nothing of the anonymous inventors of fire, the moldboard plow, and the loom) all lived centuries before the Industrial Revolution. What he was getting at, though, was, a new kind of invention. For all the ninety-eight centuries between the birth of civilization and the Industrial Revolution, inventing was largely the province of those wealthy enough to do so for the love of it (or to hire others to do on their behalf).
For anyone else, the only way to benefit from a particular invention was to keep it secret, which was both impossible in the long run, and a huge obstacle to innovation on the other. A culture of sustainable invention depends on having a large population of inventors, engaged in incremental improvements on existing inventions. Both of them are a consequence of granting temporary property rights to inventors, in return of an agreement to share the invention with the world at large. By that standard, the Industrial Revolution truly did invent invention-as-an-occupation, at least the way it is understood today.
By the way, those ninety-eight centuries during which invention was an elite hobby were the same ninety-eight centuries during which humanity’s only sources of work were muscle, wind, and water. It isn’t a coincidence.
Morris: I was surprised, frankly, to come upon your discussion of the research conducted by Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University. Specifically, the relevance of that research to James Watt and his “flash of insight.” Please explain.
Rosen: When I began researching the book, I thought the key to understanding the process of invention was revealing the neural activity associated with those “eureka” moments so beloved of historians…and I devoted most of a chapter to some pretty interesting experiments on that very subject. However, I’ve come to believe that there’s more enlightenment in Professor Ericsson’s studies of expert performance; among his discoveries (one subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers) was that true masters of a whole spectrum of activities, from basketball to playing violin to cabinet making were those who spent roughly 10,000 hours practicing that activity. The same phenomenon, it happens, applies to inventors. Time is more critical than talent, or even luck.
Morris: Let’s stay with Watt, for a moment. He possessed what you characterize as “a trained aptitude for mathematics.” Are you suggesting that this same aptitude can be learned by almost anyone else with appropriate training?
Rosen: Well, this doesn’t mean that talent doesn’t exist, or that aptitude – for mathematics or sculpting — is evenly distributed throughout the population. It does suggest, pretty strongly, that aptitude and training are necessary, but not sufficient; what really distinguished most of the inventors whose stories figure in The Most Powerful Idea in the World was their determination. It took four years from the day James Watt famously had the eureka moment that led to the separate condenser before he even applied for a patent…and another eight years before he had made a really successful engine with it. That’s more than a decade of testing and retesting different materials and designs. Time, not talent.
Morris: I was especially interested in your discussion of John Smeaton, someone who (like Watt) was a “hero to the worker bees of the Industrial Revolution.” How so?
Rosen: Smeaton was such a hero that, to this day, the professional society of British “civil” (as opposed to military) engineers is the Smeatonian Society. He practically invented the modern discipline of experimental design – systematic variation of parameters, with controls – redesigned the waterwheels (from “undershot” wheels that captured water flow at the wheel’s bottom, to “overshot” wheels that did so at the top) that still provided the bulk of England’s power needs well into the nineteenth century, and designed and built some of Britain’s most famous canals, bridges, harbors, and lighthouses. He made dramatic improvements in the original Newcomen design for the steam engine, and enough of a contribution to the Watt separate condenser engine that Watt & Boulton offered him the royalties on one of their installed engines, as a thank you.
And, oh yes: He was not only a Fellow of the Royal Society, but a recipient of its highest award, the Copley Medal. Hey, he’s my hero, too.
Morris: In Chapter Seven, you shift your attention to Abraham Darby and Benjamin Huntsman. What is their relevance to Rudyard Kipling’s suggestion that “iron – cold iron – is master of them all”?
Rosen: One of the tropes of The Most Powerful Idea in the World is the manner in which parallel developments started to weave themselves into dramatically more powerful innovations. Thus, the iron trade (already thousands of years old by the 18th century) responded to huge increases in demand with a whole series of inventions – puddling furnaces; crucibles; new kinds of fuel – that made possible the production of large numbers of iron steam engines…which were then used to operate bellows and hammers in iron forges. The overused word “synergy” (overused by generations of management and business writers, anyway) is actually appropriate here.
Morris: Which “field” is “endless”? How so?
Rosen: The term comes from a 1782 letter written by Matthew Boulton to his partner, James Watt, in which he wrote “I think that…mills represent a field that is endless, and that will be more permanent than these transient mines.” Boulton’s business strategy – to transform steam engines from the simple pumps used to remove water from Britain’s mines to machines that could power her factories…her “mills” – demanded the engineering and inventive genius of Watt…but Watt needed Boulton’s strategic vision as well.
Morris: Why is a lathe made entirely from iron so significant?
Rosen: One of the less well-known aspects of the story of industrialization – less well-known to me, at least – was the way in which technological progress of the era was hostage to precision machining. Lathes, of course, had been around since early antiquity, and even the earliest steam engines had enough of a fudge factor in their moving parts that a ¼” or so either way wasn’t a huge problem. By the end of the 17th century, however, constant improvement meant that the parts used to operate machines (steam engines, preeminently) had to be built to tighter and tighter tolerances. A lathe that was built on a wood base, however, vibrated so much that it couldn’t deliver anything close to the precision demanded…until a truly brilliant engineer and machinist named Henry Maudslay built one made out of iron – in this, as so many ways, the material of industrialization – and so dampened out so much of the movement that industrial-strength parts could be made to within tolerances of 1/10,000th of an inch.
Morris: After Watt, there were several other especially valuable “flashes of insight.” More often than not, were such revelations isolated or the latest development within a process?
Rosen: I can’t think of a single innovation of the era that was the work of a single genius creating in isolation. Even the life of someone like the polymath Robert Hooke – experimentalist, mathematician, engineer, who had more flashes of insight in more disciplines than anyone except (possibly) Isaac Newton – demonstrates more about the genius of the system, than systematic genius. Hooke was, at various times, a mechanic in the service of the “pure” scientist Robert Boyle; a correspondent with Thomas Newcomen, the onetime ironmonger who invented the first useful steam engine; and the first paid employee of the world’s first scientific society. Invention, no less than science, is a highly social process.
Morris: What is self-sustaining industrialization and its relevance to the development if steam power?
Rosen: Self-sustaining innovation isn’t built out of giant leaps, but of incremental steps…and the steam engine was, in historical terms, uniquely suited to benefit from such increments. That’s because, unlike its predecessors (primarily waterwheels and windmills) steam engines used fuel, which meant that small improvements in performance were, for the first time, measurable in the amount of coal they saved: a new design for a valve that pumped the same quantity of water using 10% less coal was now a sensible investment, so long as its benefits exceeded its costs. Steam power specifically, and the Industrial Revolution (in fact, all modern technology) was the beneficiary, and the initiator, of thousands of such incremental, and therefore sustainable, innovation.
Morris: If sustained innovation is incremental innovation, doesn’t it seem that the road to national prosperity is a failure-driven process of relentless innovation. Is that a fair assessment?
Rosen: Absolutely. One of the areas I wished I’d spent more time on, actually, is the importance of failure, since the historical record, for obvious reasons, does a better job of chronicling success. But most inventions fail…which means that a prosperous technological society has to create an environment in which the rewards of success are great enough to balance the risks of failure.
Morris: What was the Luddite Rebellion in 1811 all about?
Rosen: Luddism is a consequence of a number of historical developments, including the Napoleonic Wars, which badly damaged Britain’s export economy (by now, largely textiles) while simultaneously increasing the cost of food for the nation’s laborers…particularly those working in – you guessed it – textiles, especially cotton. This resulted in a large population of displaced and resentful knitters, weavers, and spinners, who took out their anger in a campaign of machine-breaking in the English midlands, invoking the name of their nominal (and probably fictional) leader, Ned Ludd. Vandalism occasionally escalated into assault, and even, in one or two cases, murder. Britain’s government escalated as well, sending more troops to put down the “rebellion” than Wellington had led into Spain a few years before. The leaders were tried, convicted and mostly transported to America and Australia, leaving behind, in the name “luddite” a new term describing unthinking opposition to all technology.
Morris: Here’s another passage that caught my eye, On Page 247: “A great artisan can make a family prosperous; a great inventor can enrich an entire nation.” In your opinion, which innovator enriched England most?
Rosen: This was, it seemed to me, the theme of the Luddite Rebellion…why it is properly understood as a tragedy. Those weavers, knitters, and spinners of England’s midlands saw the machines of the cotton factories as a threat…and they were right. Against the newfangled notion inherent in those machines – that ideas were property; the Luddites argued (with crowbars and torches) that their skills were property. And the economic value of the idea that “property equals labor plus skill” was very high for the family of a Lancashire weaver, but to Britain, it had far less value than the idea that property equalled labor plus ideas.
I’d be hard-pressed to select a single innovator who best enriched Britain. Watt is an obvious choice. I have soft spots, as well, for John Smeaton, father of the professional engineering class, and George Stephenson, father (or, at least grandfather) of the steam railroad.
Morris: With all due respect to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” you suggest, “machines, and nothing else, that allowed Britain, and then the world, to finally produce food (or the wealth with which to buy food) faster than it produced mouths to consume it.” What role (if any) does inspiration play? Human beings, not machines, have “flashes of insight.”
Rosen: True enough. The machines to which I referred – and the context here is Smith’s blind spot about the way in which sustained technological improvement caused wealth to grow so much faster that even favored phenomena: specialization and free trade – were, of course, the products of human inspiration: as much artifacts of human creativity as any sculpture or symphony. And, yes, flashes of insight – those solutions that arrive in a prepared human mind without effort, after effort has failed – were a necessary, though not sufficient, part of every one of those machines.
Morris: The term “King Cotton” has a special meaning in your book. Why?
Rosen: The historian Thomas Carlyle quite rightly recognized that “imperial Kaisers were impotent without the cotton and cloth of England,” and that it was Richard Arkwright – inventor of the “water-frame” that really automated cotton manufacture (and, more importantly, created the modern factory system) that gave “England the power of cotton.” Cotton, today, continues to be by far the world’s most valuable non-food agricultural crop, and it was utterly central to the Industrial Revolution. In fact, it was central to Britain’s imperial policy for centuries: The real value of the Honorable East India Company’s franchise was that India was the world’s largest producer of cheap, high-quality textiles…and it was England’s domestic producers of silk, wool, and cotton that forced Parliament to pass two sets of so-called Calico Laws to prohibit their import, thus choosing a manufacturing over a mercantile economy.
Morris: What was the single most serious problem when attempting to harness steam power for transportation? How was it solved?
Rosen: The simple problem with the steam engines that were, by the early 19th century, running factories and pumping water out of mines, was a poor power-to-weight ratio: They could produce huge amounts of power, but were far too heavy to move even themselves. This was largely because they operated at fairly low pressure: The steam produced in their boilers rarely exceeded twenty pounds per square inch, which meant they needed a lot of square inches; and that meant boilers made of a lot of very heavy iron. The problem was partly theoretical – they knew that the key to steam engine performance was pressure, but didn’t really understand that heat energy and mechanical energy were just two different ways of talking about the same thing.
The first men to figure this out in practical terms – Oliver Evans in the U.S., and Richard Trevithick in Cornwall – rejiggered the traditional geometry of steam boilers, taking the heat which had been generated underneath the water chamber, and putting it in a tube surrounded by the water chamber. Since the heat conduction was proportional to the surface area in contact with the water, this increased the steam pressure, and so the mechanical work, by orders of magnitude. The result was the first engine capable of producing enough power to haul not just itself, but an entire train of cars as well.
Morris: What is the significance of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway?
Rosen: The first scene in The Most Powerful Idea in the World takes place in a museum, in front of the locomotive Rocket, winner of the contest set up by the L&M to decide which model locomotive would be chosen to haul the cotton produced in the city of Manchester to the port of Liverpool, 35 miles away (and this was a big deal, indeed; by 1800, more than a third of all the world’s oceangoing trade passed through Liverpool…and virtually all of it was either raw cotton going in or finished goods going out). The last scene in the book is the contest itself: The 1829 race known as the Rainhill Trials. Every theme of the entire Industrial Revolution was there: the thermodynamics of steam, the cost of coal, the durability of iron, and the value of cotton.
A pretty exciting race, too.
Morris: Why did the development of the Industrial Revolution depend less on “macro-inventions” than it did on “micro-inventions”?
Rosen: As mentioned above, “macro-inventions” – the really big stuff, like Newcomen’s atmospheric engine, or Watt’s separate condenser – are not only unpredictable (like all acts of genius) but so rare that they cannot serve as the raw material for sustained innovation. On the other hand, the “micro-inventions required only a large population of talented and hard-working inventors, constantly trying to improve and so displace one another.
Historically – that is, before and after the Industrial Revolution — the macro-inventions have been the ones that got all the ink: the light bulb; the semiconductor; the separate condenser. Micro-inventions are usually the components of the machines with which the macro-inventions are most closely associated; a good example from the history of steam power is Matthew Murray’s 1797 “D-valve” (so-called for its shape), which controlled the flow of steam. Earlier self-acting valves had been relatively heavy, and required a not inconsiderable amount of the engine’s own steam power to lift…and every bit of energy that went into lifting a valve was not available for any other work. The lighter the valve, the more efficient the engine, and the D-valve weighed less than half its predecessor. The valve’s shape was likewise a cost saver: it absorbed less heat than its predecessor, thus increasing engine efficiency, since every bit of heat used to heat up the engine parts was no longer available to make steam.
The aggregate importance of such small improvements is, however, even more important than the better-known macro-inventions. The latter are, almost by definition, acts of unpredictable genius, but a culture that depends on perpetual innovation also depends on incremental improvement…and those increments are measured out in micro-inventions like Richard Trevithick’s fusible plug, Murray’s d-valve, and a thousand others.
(A category I didn’t explicitly identify in the book, but probably should have, is what might be called “meta-inventions” including the skills of experiment and measurement, and the concept of intellectual property.)
Morris: You tell a great story and every great story has a cast of memorable characters. For those who have not as yet read The Most Powerful Idea in the World, please select 3-5 of the key figures that have not received the recognition and appreciation they deserve for their contributions.
Rosen: Only five? How about Matthew Murray, a onetime tinsmith who not only invented the D-valve, above, but, in 1802, created “new combined steam engines for producing a circular power…for spinning cotton, flax, tow and wool, or for any purpose requiring circular power.” Or Henry Whitworth, an assistant to Henry Maudslay, who developed a measuring system accurate to one-millionth – that’s one-millionth – of an inch. (UK joined the metric system, the standard unit for screw threads was the BSW, which stands for British Standard Whitworth). Then there’s the thoroughly remarkable Benjamin Thompson of Massachusetts, a loyalist American who, after backing the losing side in the Revolutionary War, moved, to Europe, where he was made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire in 1791.
Seven years later, Count Rumford theorized, in a monograph entitled An Experimental Enquiry Concerning the Source of the Heat Which is Excited by Friction, that heat and motion are essentially the same thing, thus providing a theoretical foundation to the engines of Trevithick and Evans. And how about John Fitch? Fitch was a Connecticut clockmaker and silversmith whose 1787 demonstration of a working steamboat in front of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia inspired the patent clause in Article 1, Section 8, of the United States Constitution.
(The textile industry alone could provide half-a-dozen unfairly forgotten characters, each worthy of an entire book, from Edmund Cartwright, in the words of the historian, A.P. Usher, “the last of the great inventors who belong to the craft period,” who built the first power loom in 1785; to John Lombe, who stole the plans for Britain’s first silk-spinning machine from the city of Livorno in 1712; to two men both improbably named John Kay: one who invented the flying shuttle, the other who built the first machine to spin cotton on rollers.)
Morris: When concluding Chapter Eleven, you note that the finish line for first stage of the race to technological mastery was “the use of condensed steam to convert atmospheric pressure in the reciprocating motion of [Thomas] Newcomen’s pumps.” What were the culminating developments of the second and third stages?
Rosen: When I was originally organizing the material that became The Most Powerful Idea in the World, I had intended breaking the book into three parts. The first one, to be entitled “Leverage” would have ended with the quotation you noted: the conversion of atmospheric pressure into back-and-forth reciprocation, in the form of a long beam…hence Leverage. I discarded the 3-Part structure as unnecessary, but the second, would have culminated with the story of the way in which the engines of James Watt and his partner Matthew Boulton (and a number of others) converted the reciprocating motion of the early steam engines into rotary motion.
This was huge, since those mechanical innovations – cams, planetary gears, linkages, and cranks — also transformed steam engines from machines good only for pumping water out of mines into ones that could provide the smooth rotary motion needed by flour and cotton mills, and eventually every sort of factory. In fact, until the age of electricity, the typical steam-operated factory used those same linkages to transfer power to shop floors by elaborate networks of belts.
The third stage, of course, was the marriage of pressure leverage to rotary motion in the form of locomotion: Steam locomotion. And the railroads and steamships that were the signature machines of this stage were, it seems to me, a kind of inevitable consequence of the previous two stages.
Morris: There is so much of interest and value to discuss. When preparing for this interview, I drafted more than one hundred questions. Perhaps we can reconvene another time. Meanwhile, before concluding, please suggest what lessons can be learned from the development of steam-powered machines that can help guide and inform innovation in mass production today. Sustainability, for example.
Rosen: I am asked, frequently, what lessons the Industrial Revolution has to teach about innovation today. Usually I stammer out some sort of banality, because the events recorded in The Most Powerful Idea in the World aren’t hugely helpful in understanding, for example, how countries in sub-Saharan Africa can achieve their own technological revolutions. In some ways, the Industrial Revolution is interesting precisely because it was unique: It only happened once; it was so successful that it rapidly spread around the world; and it is still going on today. Heraclitus said you cannot put your foot into the same river twice, and I don’t know that we should worry overmuch about recapturing the Industrial Revolution. I repeat: We’re still living in it.
In any case, historians aren’t really the best guides for creating policies that might promote innovation today. The best they can do is help to understand the nature of the bargain on which innovation depends: On the one hand, a temporary property grant to inventors so that they have an incentive to invent; on the other, the return of that property to the society at large. The trick, it seems to me, is in constantly tweaking the balance, so that patents are neither so easy to acquire that companies (and individuals: “patent trolls”) to easily get grants that are neither novel nor practical, but which are purely intended to frustrate competitors; nor so onerous that innovators preserve their advantage through secrecy, rather than patent.
The costs of a too-easy system are well-known – “met-too” drugs that perform no better than their predecessors; seed patents that are so restrictive that agribusinesses censor the research of scientists examining their performance – but a system that promotes secrecy – in software, or biotech — may be even more pernicious: innovation depends on a protected public space, in which innovators can examine and improve upon the work of others.
If there is a lesson, however, in the early history of industrialization, it’s that this isn’t a balance that can be struck once and for always. So long as there have been patents, there have been inventors trying to game the system to their own advantage…sometimes the most productive inventors as well. The notion that ideas have property value may be, to coin a phrase, “the most powerful idea in the world” but it’s only powerful to the degree that societies are able to balance the incentives of inventors with the “spillover” benefits to society at large.
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