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The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention

3.88  ·  Rating details ·  993 ratings  ·  128 reviews
If all measures of human advancement in the last hundred centuries were plotted on a graph, they would show an almost perfectly flat line—until the eighteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution would cause the line to shoot straight up, beginning an almost uninterrupted march of progress.
In The Most Powerful Idea in the World, William Rosen tells the story of the
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published June 1st 2010 by Random House (first published January 1st 2010)
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3.88  · 
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 ·  993 ratings  ·  128 reviews

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*interview on the Daily Show *

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 t
Sep 11, 2013 rated it really liked it
On the ground floor of the Science Museum in London’s South Kensington neighborhood, on a low platform in the center of the gallery called “Making of the Modern World,” is the most famous locomotive ever built. It's the Rocket, a locomotive that marks the inaugoration of something pretty significant - two centuries of mass transportation.

But how and why did the technology that was used to create this first locomotive, begin?

Why, for a long time in history, human development stood still? Or, in t
This may be the single greatest socio-political-economic history ever written. The only comparable book is "A Splendid Exchange," which has a far broader scope yet, as my review indicates, is marred by an annoying trope of academia. A history of the Industrial Revolution, this book explains why the changes took place when and where they did, and the (forgive me) locomotive force that drove exponential growth rates, ending Malthusian nightmares. "The miracle of sustainable invention [is] the most ...more
Dec 17, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
I enjoyed this book quite a bit, but I'm not sure I can really recommend it whole-heartedly. It was interesting to learn about an area of history I wasn't too acquainted with (the 18th century in terms of technological development), and the narrative is generally quite captivating.

A major weakness is that a lot of time and space is spent describing the workings of various different types of steam engines and precisely what the advantages were of a host of different innovations pioneered by vari
Jock Mcclees
May 01, 2014 rated it really liked it
I was a little bit surprised by what the author chose as the most powerful idea in the world. The book is a fascinating recounting of the forces and inventions that were the Industrial Revolution. I had never realized how central the steam engine was to all that, but it was interesting how the interplay between steam power, coal mining, textile production, transportation and others led to the growth. It was intriguing to read about how the myriad small inventions in different areas all built on ...more
Tudor Ciocarlie
Sep 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
If you want the best book about the Scientific Revolution then read The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. If you want the best book about the Industrial Revolution then read The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention.
Mar 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
"The Patent System added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius." - Abraham Lincoln

When I picked up this book I wasn't sure - even after reading several reviews - what it was about; a history of invention, a layman's science/engineering text or even a "biography" of the locomotive. Well The Most Powerful Idea in the World is all that and much more - and is a fascinating read.

Using the steam engine Rocket, (built in 1829), as his center-piece, the author takes the reader on an historical jour
May 24, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, science
The main thesis of the book is the exploration of the "whys" and "hows" of the Industrial Revolution, and I thought William Rosen tackled it admirably.

Starting in Hero's Alexandria of the 2nd Century CE, to France and the invention of the vacuum driven piston, Rosen spends almost all the remaining time in Britain with Newcomen, Savery and later James Watt who all helped in the invention of the steam engine.

The book doesn't focus on the technology aspect alone but spends a fair amount of time on
Apr 01, 2015 rated it liked it
"The Most Powerful Idea in the World" is a "Connections"-style book about the developments in technology and ideas that were needed to create an effective steam engine. The author covered the economic, legal, and social issues that came together to foster invention. He also followed various threads of technological developments from ancient times to 1829 that were needed for the creation of steam locomotives. He talked about many inventors and inventions along the way, including developments in ...more
Jan 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, science
This book looks at how the Industrial Revolution happened and how in a fairly small island off Europe fossil fuels were first harnessed which in turn led to the enormous increase in wealth over the past 200 years.

The book is well written and very much worth reading for people who are interested in the technology and concepts that changed humanity. Rosen asks the question as to why it was in Britain, rather than in China that this happened. Rosen credits the patents system substantially.

The boo
Philip Demare
Feb 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
Those who picked up the book looking for a treatise on the evolution of steam engines would do well to look at the subtitle. (i.e. The Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention.)
For while the there is some valuable intormation on early steam engine evolution, primarily the Newcombe and Watt engines in the first couple of chapters and the first practical steam locomotive Rocket in the last, the author casts his net much wider than that. In a style that reminds one somewhat of a James Burke book, t
Yasser Mohammad
Oct 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
The main thesis of this bopk is that the industrial revolution was mainly a revolution in innovation which resulted from the establishment of a new understanding of intellectual property in a large enough country.
The book is clear and easy to follow even though it could have benefited from more explanation of the mechanical details of mechanisms for the uninitiated.
The clarity and focus may have caused some oversimplification in some parts.
Dec 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Before the Industrial Revolution manufacturing was done by small scale cottage industries working at the same slow pace as they had for many centuries past. It was labor intensive and worked by hand, but because there was so little automation, there was also less of an impact on the environment. The Industrial Revolution would change all that, for better and for worse. The powered looms made finished cloth much cheaper for consumers but condemned workers to the “dark Satanic mills” that Blake de ...more
Joy Weese Moll
Feb 04, 2018 rated it liked it
Why did the steam engine emerge on the island of Great Britain in the 18th and 19th century? The basic principles were known to the Greeks. The Chinese had coal. Other countries had relatively educated populations and more people to draw from for their inventors.

Rosen argues that the British developed a unique innovative culture. Before this time, inventions were kept secret as long as possible so that the original inventor could make money on it. Since sharing information is required for an inn
Gary Gray
Jul 22, 2017 rated it did not like it
I rarely write reviews, but I had to write one for this book.
I thought I was going to read a book about the steam engine and the industrial revolution.
Instead this is a book of tangents in which the author talks about everything but the steam engine until the final chapter. Sure, all the inventions are part of the steam engine and the steam engine could not exist without them, but the book is not about the steam engine.
The author spends more time talking about property and invention rights than
Joe Hoggard
Jun 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book traces the evolution of thought and a system of laws designed to protect ideas as patents for a limited time against the back drop of technological growth commonly called the industrial revolution. It carefully tells the stories of some of the key players in the development of steam power and the obstacles they faced. It explains why incremental advances added to greater prosperity and higher standards of living, especially in Great Britain and its former colonies, from the 19th centur ...more
Lee Osborne
Aug 11, 2018 rated it liked it
This book deals with the development of the steam engine, and how it evolved from a lumbering, low-powered giant into the powerful, lightweight machine that gave birth to the railways. The author does a great job of making a potentially dry subject interesting and accessible, and there's a number of fascinating characters and stories in here. The particular emphasis is on how and why the industrial revolution happened when and where it did, and there's quite a lot of philosophy involved in answe ...more
Mihai Parparita
Not technical enough

I was hoping for a steam/Industrial Revolution equivalent to Rhodes’s The Making of The Atomic Bomb. While there were some technical details and a narrative thread, there were also tangents about the nature of creativity, invention, etc that I didn’t find particularly interesting. Additionally, some of the technical explanations were not very clear, and the accompanying diagrams were from the original patents, and thus not legible or particularly helpful.
Vyom Khandelia
May 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
Well written book which brings multiple ideas together about patents, innovations, the people behind them, their motivations, the eco system etc. It goes deep into engjneering and talks about the complexity of the technology. What is perhaps not detailed out is how economics behind the industrial revolution, the market, the money and legal system. the main grouse I had was it used the UK measurement system and not the metric system though I can understand that this system was apt for this book
May 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Obtained this book about a year ago, but kept putting off reading it thinking it was mostly about the invention/development of the steam engine for trains, but came to understand quickly it was about much more--about inventing and patenting itself, and why it was in England that mankind figured out a more optimal way to do both. Wish I had read it sooner.
DeAnna Knippling
May 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Great stuff. Many of the engineering details were over my head and I couldn't visualize them...but I take that as a personal limitation, not one of the book :) This is an excellent, multi-discipline take on the Industrial Revolution, and it put a lot of small details from other books about the period into a much better perspective for me. Recommend.
Todd McCaffrey
Jul 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
I've re-read this book several times. It is a marvelous journey through the start of the Industrial Revolution and "the most powerful idea in the world." If you're into science or technology, this is a great read.
David Harlan
Dec 02, 2018 rated it liked it
I thought this was a good mix of a big idea "what makes some countries/societies more innovative than others," and the detailed history of the development of steam power form ancient beginnings through the first practical locomotives.
May 04, 2017 rated it liked it
If you like History then this book is a must. So many things changed in so short of a time, the world will never be the same again. it really is a great read for a history buff, not so much if you just want stories.
Mike Scott
Jun 29, 2017 rated it it was ok
Informational, well-researched. Too long... Took me forever to slog through.
Jan 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
A good overview of the role of patents in the Industrial Revolution.
Mar 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book talks about the advent of the industrial revolution and essays that the most important advance made was the protection of ideas through patents and patent law. Advances are only possible through the financial penalties and protections that the law affords. Unless, of course, you are Elon Musk and you open all your patents to the world and hope that they adopt your ideas. Or Linus Torvalds. Or Tim Berners-Lee.
Victoria Gaile
Oct 19, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very interesting excursion through the history of invention, like a leisurely ramble through the countryside led by a true aficianado, with side trips that may seem to be taking you out of your way but will certainly enrich your journey.

The author uses the device of the Rocket, the first steam locomotive on display in the British Museum, as the unifying thread for the journey, and explores the development of every significant technological invention that led to it. This doesn't mean just the m
Feb 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
I've enjoyed reading this as much as I've enjoyed any book expounding on the history of technology. I won't get into the describing the book since that's well covered in the other reviews around here. I will state, though, that Rosen's blend of popular expository prose, academic esoterica and technical detail struck an appealing balance. Steam power itself is not the "most powerful idea" but it is the framework, the environment and the best way yet to illustrate the conjunction of intellect, law ...more
Eric Gardner
Jan 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
I read The Most Powerful Idea in the World, William Rosen’s book about the invention of the steam engine, for two reasons, one of which was Bill Gates’ glowing recommendation. In his review, he raved about how Rosen was one of the first people to successfully argue that patent law had a large impact on innovation. Since I am working on a project that looks at the impact of legal systems on innovation it only seemed natural. But I had a reservation. Not about the time period, I’d read a few books ...more
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William Rosen was an historian and author who previously was an editor an publisher at Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and the Free Press for nearly twenty-five years. He lived in Princeton, New Jersey.

From recent obituary

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
“Incised in the stone over the Herbert C. Hoover Building’s north entrance is the legend that, with Lincoln’s characteristic brevity, sums up the single most powerful idea in the world: THE PATENT SYSTEM ADDED THE FUEL OF INTEREST TO THE FIRE OF GENIUS” 0 likes
“The brain is evolutionarily hard-wired to do its best daydreaming only when it senses that it is safe to do so—when, in short, it is relaxed. In Kounios’s words, “The relaxation phase is crucial.5 That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers.” Or during Sunday afternoon walks on Glasgow Green, when the idea of a separate condenser seems to have excited the aSTG in the skull of James Watt. Eureka indeed.” 0 likes
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