The Most Powerful Idea in the World

A reader suggestion:

The Most Powerful Idea in the World  by William Rosen (2010)

I’ve actually been surprised that this book didn’t receive more interest in the Right blogsphere.  In it, Rosen, tells the story of the development of the steam engine.  From the court cases in England that developed the idea of patent, beyond a royal spoil, the run of the first steam locomotive.  Along the way, we discover how the original inventors came not from “higher education” of the state supported kind but from alternative universities and the trades due to their Protestant religion.  We also learn of the formation of the Royal Society and peculiarity of membership being restricted to those who did not require a job.  A problem that left out many great minds and forced the Society to create a position for Robert Hooke, a man of great scientific discovery even as he was also a man who had to work for a living.

The book is short on technical detail of steam power but brilliantly colored in regards to the times it came about.  With enlightening discussions of the importation of energy (wood) into England before the discovery of coal as an energy source.  As well as the mines of Cornwall where the need to dewater was the impetus for steam power and the fact the first engines were not cost effective if the coal that fired them had to be carried past the mine entrance.

Walter Russell Mead had a post about Elizabeth I, “The Modern World Begins”.  To which I wrote:

“Your post reminded me of William Rosen’s discussion of the Case of Monopolies and Edward Coke in his book ‘The Most Powerful Idea in the World’.  His contention is that the decision in that case set the ball rolling for the English patent law.  Elizabeth I permitted her  monopoly awards to be challenged which precipitated that case.  Rosen asserts the creation of patents for the first and true inventor was the prerequisite for the development of the steam engine as well as all the other inventions that created the modern world.

I suppose one could say, Elizabeth is the mother of invention.”

The book is a celebration of the free market, the right to profit from your ideas, and human ingenuity unshackled.  As Rosen states, the steam engine was a decidedly Englsih-speaking world invention.  By which he meant, it is only in the English speaking countries that all the crucial elements for steam power were invented.  This is not to say the many immigrants from France and elsewhere to the English-speaking countries didn’t contribute to the steam engine, just that they did not have the opportunities in their home countries.

BTW, I learned of this book when Rosen gave a great interview on the Daily Show.  He was very funny and to his credit, Stewart stayed out of the way.  I’d recommend him for a PJTV interview candidate.



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Image courtesy shutterstock / Konstantin L

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