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THE MOST POWERFUL IDEA IN THE WORLD by William Rosen Kirkus Star

THE MOST POWERFUL IDEA IN THE WORLD

A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention

By William Rosen

Pub Date: June 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6705-3
Publisher: Random House

Former book editor and publisher Rosen (Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe, 2007) pursues the question of why English-speaking peoples developed the key mechanical innovations that propelled the modern world.

In 1829, George and Robert Stephenson’s Rocket inaugurated the age of steam-powered locomotion, hauling with it a rich lineage of previous inventions mostly by enterprising men in the Anglosphere—“Great Britain and its former colonies, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.” Harnessing steam power abruptly doubled human productivity, which had been “flat as Kansas for a hundred centuries” before turning “like the business end of a hockey stick.” What prompted the English and Welsh to take that spark of genius and make something useful, even profitable, with it? Patent law had a lot to do with fostering the “itch to own one’s own work,” and Rosen devotes much of his fascinating, wide-ranging narrative to the importance of common-law rulings in favor of the original inventors—e.g., Attorney General Edward Coke, the influential English jurist at the turn of the 17th century, vehemently ruled against monopolies and supported England’s craftsmen. At the same time, Francis Bacon propounded science and invention as a free-flowing social enterprise, while John Locke defined the concept of property in terms of God-given labor. Open science, literacy, the growth of markets (e.g., the textiles explosion) and improved ironmaking skills all helped prod British, and soon American, inventors to solve mechanical problems both for personal interest and national glory. The only flaw in Rosen’s exhaustive survey is the lack of attention paid to female inventors.

A staggering work of epistemological research.