Jim's Reviews > The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention

The Most Powerful Idea in the World by William Rosen
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's review
Oct 31, 10

Read from July 08 to 13, 2010

*interview on the Daily Show
http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon... *

Like Malcolm Gladwell, Jared Diamond and James Burke, William Rosen asks an interesting question about success and society. The question is : Why did the Industrial Revolution occur in the British Isles instead of India, China, Eastern Europe, South America? I'm found this topic interesting as I think about the need for innovation regarding today's energy needs.

This book offers his theories and provides the history of this invention revolution. As a historical view, it lacks detailed engineering information and illustrations. This can be found on the web or other books.

Since I would like to refer back to his explanation and supporting facts, I'm writing some here.

His premise of why the Industrial Revolution occurred in Britian
"The best explanation for the preeminence of English speakers in lifting humanity out of it's 10,000 year long Malthusian trap is the Anglophone world democratized the nature of invention."


World population grew 100 fold between 500 BCE and 1600ce from 5 to 500 million. Everyone ate the same amount of food, lived the same number of years and buried the same amounts of children. The worldwide GDP (in 1990 $) in 800 GCE was the same for 1600 England about $ 583.

On average, a baby born in France in 1800 lived 25 fewer years than a baby born in the Republic of Congo in 2000.

4th Century laborer - works 3 hours for a pound of bread
1800 laborer - 2hours
1900 - 20 minutes
Today- 5 minutes

The industries of Coal, Iron, Steam Engines, Cotton and Railroads were connected and created an infinite loop of innovation. The Steam Engine was needed to pump water out of coal mines, coal was used to make iron that was used to make steam engines, improvements in the steam engines were required to cost effectively replace water wheels in textile factories, trains moved the cotton. This connected economy brought about big and incremental improvements in small and large machinery,manufacturing techniques, design,information sharing and scientific understanding,

Because Europe had more Artisans than Scientists, the demand for promising application research was far greater than pure science.

A highly important market was the British demand for Best Practices in the crafts.

When work is imperfectly aligned with rewards,science remains the activity of those with an outside income.

Inventors initially forgo 1/3 of their income making it a somewhat irrational occupation.

A new enthusiasm for creating knowledge led to the public sharing of experimental methods and results,demand for those results led to new communication channels amongst theoretical scientists.This spread also to real world application training in coffee houses and inns which artisans could buy.

The Newcomen Steam Engine used coal so inefficiently that it could only be used next to coal mines to pump out water.

The Scot's relative poverty and opportunity in British possessions lead to the Scottish enthusiasm for education.

Gin was made from fermenting grain so bad it couldn't be used for beer.

The ancient Guild economy had a belief that knowledge was a zero sum game.(that knowledge lost value once shared). The industrial revolution required more knowledge sharing which benefited more people.

Production of 10,000 tons of iron demanded 100,000 acres of forest. A single 17th century iron works could denude 4000 acres each year. Coal was used because Iron burned wood faster than it could be grown.

Entrepreneurs had to depend on constantly improving inventions. Watts was successful because he made a steam engine cheap as well as good.

Shipping large amounts of freight by barge is always cheaper than by land although slow. 4mph.

For every 30 degrees of heat to the water doubles the power. Doubling the heat of the water equals 100X the energy. Power rises geometrically while fuel is used arithmetically. Thus new high pressure steam design economically allowed for train travel.

An important incremental improvement in the steam engine was the fusible plug. When water level in tank became dangerously low the plug (which needs to be covered by water) would melt thus letting steam out the hole and avoiding explosions.

So much of Manchester's cotton shipped out of Liverpool, that Liverpool shipped 1/3 of the worlds trade in 1800.

Today's Steam Turbines turn 80% of heat energy into work as opposed to 30% in a Cornish Engine.

From 1700-2000
Population increased 12 x
Production increased 100X

The LA Times review is found below:


The British Industrial Revolution in Global PerspectiveThe British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective
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Reading Progress

07/08/2010 page 16
4.0% "Just got this from the library. The prologue is very good!"
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