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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 23 November 2010
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. There are passages in the narrative when key multi-disciplinary issues embrace history, economics, sociology, history, psychology, and commerce.

My third reason is personal: Prior to reading this book, I knew almost nothing about - nor had much (if any) interest in - most of the subjects that Rosen discusses with eloquent rigor. I had the same reaction when reading two of Steven Johnson's books, The Ghost Map (2006) and The Invention of Air (2008). I am grateful to both Rosen and Johnson for writing books that are, for me, magic carpets that transport me back in time to experience (albeit vicariously) not only what would be otherwise be inaccessible but also, more to the point, would otherwise be unknown to me.

Congratulations to William Rosen on a stunning achievement!
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on 9 February 2011
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. Other topics covered include Coke and Locke on patent law and the ownership of ideas, Malthus on population, Adam Smith and Ricardo on economics and early theories of heat.

Although the patent system may be the key to industrialisation, it is surely not the point of origin out of which the modern democratic industrial world has emerged. To address that mystery we need to go further back in European history and ask about rationality and the Enlightenment, the system of competing European states, the republican style of government and many other issues - but that is not a criticism of this book.

The only criticism to my mind concerns its deeply uninformative modern-style contents list - seemingly intended more to catch the eye of someone browsing in a bookshop than to show the structure of the work. This is a shame because a good contents list is needed to navigate a book that is more of a rollicking romp through history rather than a structured thesis. Perhaps the publisher is responsible for this lapse which is likely to have halved sales of the book.

All in all, an excellent read - as good as Rosen's earlier work "Justinian's Flea", and on an entirely different and indeed even more important historical subject.
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on 26 February 2015
I found this a fascinating book, about a fascinating subject. William has taken Stephenson's steam engine as focal point of an exploration of history, technology and ideas. This is far more than a history of one steam engine, it is a book that uses the advance of technology to reflect on social, economic, legal, political, economic and philosophical issues.

Chapter 12- 'Strong steam' is the chapter that grabbed my attention the most; giving the best summary of the birth of the 'Cornish' engine I have found so far. The story told within that chapter is intertwined with the one told in 'The Last Great Cornish Engineer', a book that explains how William West took the high pressure beam engine to the peak of its development.
navsbooks.wordpress.com

The Last Great Cornish Engineer: William West of TredenhamThe Last Great Cornish Engineer: William West of Tredenham
Sketch of the life of William West C.E. of Tredenham-The last of the great Cornish Engineers
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on 15 December 2012
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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on 31 October 2014
An excellent introduction to the subject. Interesting review of the factors operating in the background to enable the Industrial Revolution to happen where and when it did. Thoroughly recommended
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on 28 August 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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on 12 January 2016
This is a very good piece of industrial and scientific history
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on 12 October 2010
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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