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The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry and Invention: Water, Fire, and the Most Powerful Idea in the World [Hardcover]

William Rosen
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

3 Jun 2010

'The most important invention of the Industrial Revolution was invention itself.' Those words are at the heart of this remarkable book. The Most Powerful Idea in the World is more than a stunning history of the Industrial Revolution and the steam engine at its core. It is an amazing account of how inventors first came to own and profit from their ideas-and how invention itself springs forth from logic and imagination.

Rocket. It was the fortuitously-named train that inaugurated steam locomotion in 1829, jump-starting two centuries of mass transportation. As William Rosen reveals, it was the product of centuries of scientific and industrial discovery. From inventor Heron of Alexandria in 60 AD to James Watt, the physicist whose 'separate condenser' was central to the development of steam power, to businessman Matthew Boulton, who envisioned whole factories powered with Watt's engines-all those who made possible the long ride towards the Industrial Revolution are brought to unforgettable life.

But crucial to their contributions are other characters whose concepts allowed their inventions to flourish: John Locke, who conceived of what we now know as 'intellectual property', and Edward Coke, whose work led to the patent system that, as Abraham Lincoln said, 'added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius'. Along the way, Rosen takes us deep into the human mind, explaining, for example, how 'eureka' moments occur-when the brain is most relaxed.

Astonishingly erudite yet completely accessible, this is a superb and inspiring work about the experiments and accomplishments that led to a revolution, the effects of which still power and plague us today.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Jonathan Cape (3 Jun 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0224082256
  • ISBN-13: 978-0224082259
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 24.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 236,632 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


`Rosen is skilled at hooking small, local phenomena into a narrative of global sweep and significance'
--The Guardian

`Rosen is skilled at hooking small, local phenomena into a narrative of global sweep and significance' -- The Guardian --The Guardian

"This book runs along a new track like - well, like a Rocket" --The Times

"Its scope and lively intelligence make it the best kind of popular account." --Financial Times

`An enjoyable read... Mr Rosen makes a powerful case'
-- The Economist

Book Description

An enthralling and accessible history of the invention which transformed the world: steam power

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
4.0 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
By Robert Morris TOP 500 REVIEWER
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 his 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 (e.g. 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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
An inspiring book on the Industrial Revolution, the inventors and inventions that made it possible, and the philosophical, scientific, legal and economic milieux out of which it emerged. Rosen maintains that the key to invention and industrialisation is the law of patents and intellectual property in general - "the most powerful idea in the world".

Inventions covered include the steam engine, iron smelting, cotton spinning and weaving machines, the steam locomotive and many more. The factory system is covered, as are the coal mining, railway and many other industries. Rosen vividly describes at length the struggles and triumphs of the numerous inventors in many countries and their inventions. His text makes clear just how many inventions go to make up an industrial revolution, and how many brilliant and tenacious inventors were needed to push the 'project' along.

The scientific background is explored, and it emerges that certain scientific ideas, such as an understanding of the nature of the vacuum and the power of atmospheric pressure, were essential - contrary to assertions elsewhere that the Industrial Revolution was improvised by engineering "hackers" with no scientific knowledge. But, please note: the science of thermodynamic came after the steam engine, despite the fact that it is the science that explains how it works!

The question of population and invention is raised and examined, and Rosen concludes that patent laws are no use to small states, and that specialisation, invention and therefore the potentiality for industrialisation increase with population. The reflexive nature of the process is highlighted - industrialisation bootstrapping itself.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Profound, Entertaining and Fascinating 15 Dec 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book explains why the patent system is fundamental to wealth creation, innovation and quality of life. The explanation is set in the context of industrial innovation in the UK and makes fascinating reading. I have given all my copies away...!
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Flawed hypothesis 28 Aug 2010
The stated `most powerful idea in the world' was disappointing. I think the point was missed in trying to quantify a single idea as that which caused the Industrial Revolution, when the real reasons were mentioned in the book.

Well written, informative and recommended.
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1 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Failed Attempt 12 Oct 2010
By Bownham
There is great deal of research behind this book. However Rosen's stolid writing does not create a thread out of it. It reads like 'The Boys' Own Collection of Interesting Facts'. Some of the facts are mere padding. The science and engineering is parroted without understanding. Some of it is just wrong.
Rosen seems not to be a historian, nor a scientist or engineer, nor - and most importantly - an entertaining or lucid writer. A dreary book.
Compare with what an enjoyable and clever book Bryson made of a Short History of Nearly Everything. He got to grips with much more complex scientific ideas.
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