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
Jun 19, 2016

it was amazing
bookshelves: industrial-revolution, thermodynamics-steam-engines, bill-gates-book-club
Read from July 08 to 13, 2010 — I own a copy , read count: 3

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

Reviewers Note: rereading/listening to this for the 3-4th time and taking more notes.

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.

The Crofton Pump station uses an original Watts engine and is the oldest steam engine used for it's original purpose. https://goo.gl/1peh6g

Abbott Payson Usher- described the four steps of inventing.

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

There are by popular consensus over 200 explanations for the cause of the Industrial Revolution .ie;ranging from Max Weber theory on Protestantism more congenial to innovation, China's lack of raw material esp. coal, England absence of internal tariffs & landowning peasant shortage made it a short leap to IR, GB people ate more beef than the French, population shortage from plague made labor expensive. Additional theories found here: https://goo.gl/CkUyiw

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,

Thousands of innovations were necessary for steam power to work and thousand on innovations were created due to it's invention.

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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Quotes Jim Liked

William Rosen
“It’s still running today. If you examined the years since 1800 in twenty-year increments, and charted every way that human welfare can be expressed in numbers—not just annual per capita GDP, which climbed to more than $6,000 by 2000, but mortality at birth (in fact, mortality at any age); calories consumed; prevalence of infectious disease; average height of adults; percentage of lifetime spent disabled; percentage of population living in poverty; number of rooms per person; percentage of population enrolled in primary, secondary, and postsecondary education; illiteracy; and annual hours of leisure time—the chart will show every measure better at the end of the period than it was at the beginning. And the phenomenon isn’t restricted to Europe and North America; the same improvements have occurred in every region of the world. A baby born in France in 1800 could expect to live thirty years—twenty-five years less than a baby born in the Republic of the Congo in 2000. The nineteenth-century French infant4 would be at significantly greater risk of starvation, infectious disease, and violence, and even if he or she were to survive into adulthood, would be far less likely to learn how to read.”
William Rosen, The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention

Reading Progress

07/08/2010 page 16
4.0% "Just got this from the library. The prologue is very good!"
06/15/2016 marked as: read
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message 1: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim -I just saw this-
William Rosen PRINCETON JUNCTION Author William Rosen, 61, whose works of narrative nonfiction include "Justinian's Flea" and "The Most Powerful Idea in the World: The Story of Steam, Industry and Invention," died at home on April 28, 2016, of gastrointestinal stromal cancer, according to his agent. Born in California, Rosen worked for nearly 25 years as an editor and publisher at Macmillan, Simon and Schuster and the Free Press before becoming an author. With a writing style that used anecdotes to pull together the threads of discovery and innovation, Rosen authored or co-authored books on education, traffic, antibiotics, and climate change. Bill Gates said of Rosen's work, "Rosen argues that only with the ability to measure incremental advances--such as whether a lighter part lowers fuel consumption, or one engine produces more power than another--can you achieve sustained innovation. Rosen's view fits my own view of the power of measurement." Rosen grew up in Los Angeles, CA, attended UCLA and, after a brief stint at John Wiley and Sons, moved east for publishing. He edited books authored by George Will, as well as William Bennett, Bernard Lewis, Maya Lin, and Leon Kass. But he found true fulfillment writing books instead of only publishing them. Rosen lived in Princeton, NJ, and is survived by his wife, Jeanine; two daughters, Quillan and Emma; a son, Alex; and his brother, Gary, and sister-in-law Holly. Arrangements are under the direction of the Star of David Memorial Chapel, Princeton. Star of David Memorial Chapel of Princeton 40 Vandeventer Ave., Princeton, NJ 08542 (609) 924-0242
- See more at: http://obits.nj.com/obituaries/starle...

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