The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention

The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention

William Rosen

Language: English

Pages: 376

ISBN: 0226726347

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


Hardly a week passes without some high-profile court case that features intellectual property at its center. But how did the belief that one could own an idea come about? And how did that belief change the way humankind lives and works?

William Rosen, author of Justinian's Flea, seeks to answer these questions and more with The Most Powerful Idea in the World. A lively and passionate study of the engineering and scientific breakthroughs that led to the steam engine, this book argues that the very notion of intellectual property drove not only the invention of the steam engine but also the entire Industrial Revolution: history’s first sustained era of economic improvement. To do so, Rosen conjures up an eccentric cast of characters, including the legal philosophers who enabled most the inventive society in millennia, and the scientists and inventors—Thomas Newcomen, Robert Boyle, and James Watt—who helped to create and perfect the steam engine over the centuries. With wit and wide-ranging curiosity, Rosen explores the power of creativity, capital, and collaboration in the brilliant engineering of the steam engine and how this power source, which fueled factories, ships, and railroads, changed human history.   

Deeply informative and never dull, Rosen's account of one of the most important inventions made by humans is a rollicking ride through history, with careful scholarship and fast-paced prose in equal measure.

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in Kranzberg and Pursell, eds., Technology in Western Civilization. 12 Even before the Company chose the village of Calcutta Landes, Wealth and Poverty of Nations. 13 Even then, it made for a very rough weave Woodruff D. Smith, Consumption and the Making of Respectability, 1600–1800 (New York: Routledge, 2002). 14 Between 1700 and 1750 T. Ivan Berend, An Economic History of Twentieth Century Europe: Economic Regimes from Laissez-Faire to Globalization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

gearing, and instrument repair. His pride in the fine navigational instrument he built as his graduation project is indistinguishable from that felt by a gymnast doing her first back handspring. James Watt, however, is remembered not as a master clockmaker, but as one of the greatest inventors of all time. And this is where the expert performance model becomes even more relevant. By the 1990s, Ericsson’s research was demonstrating2 that the same phenomenon he had first discovered among concert

and Gerry McDonnell, came to north Yorkshire in order to investigate twelfth-century ironmaking techniques. This turns out to be a lot more than traditional pick-and-shovel archaeology; since the earth itself has a fair amount of residual iron (and therefore electrical conductivity), calculating the amount and quality of iron produced at any ruin requires extremely sophisticated high-tech instruments, with intimidating names like magnetometers and fluxgate gradiometers, to separate useful

Controlling the process that melted, and therefore hardened, iron was an art form, like cooking on a woodstove without a thermostat. It’s worth remembering that while recognizably human cultures had been using fire for everything from illumination to space heating to cooking for hundreds of thousands of years, only potters and metalworkers needed to regulate its heat with much precision, and they developed a large empirical body of knowledge about fire millennia before anyone could figure out why

of the Toleration Act of 1689, one of the many consequences of the arrival of William and Mary (and John Locke) the year before. Darby’s Quaker affiliation was to have a number of consequences—the Society’s well-known pacifism barred him, for example, from the armaments industry—but the most important was that, like persecuted minorities throughout history, the Quakers took care of their own. So when Darby moved to Bristol in 1699, after completing his seven years of training with Freeth, he was

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