The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention by William Rosen
Random House (June 1, 2010), 400 pages
“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 journey of innovation and invention, beginning in “ancient times”, through the Dark Ages, the Renaissance and culminating with the Industrial Revolution. The book is full of anecdotes, biographical sketches, (the reader meets Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, Edward Coke, James Watt and a slew of others), psychology and neurobiology, economics and political theory – including the Malthusian Trap - and even the science behind many of the inventions. (To be honest some of the latter eluded this reader, but this “challenge” didn’t take away from my fascination with this book.)
The author also generously sprinkles his sardonic humor/wit throughout – which although may not elicit guffaws, will definitely have you chuckling at times. There is also an interesting premise, which Rosen does a very good job of explaining, as to why the English-speaking world was at the forefront of this phenomenon of “invention” and more importantly, its real-world “application”. (Lincoln’s quote above, a hint as to why this was/is – “Honest Abe” once again capturing a chapter in human endeavor both succinctly and poetically.) This is a great book and I have no doubt I will be re-reading it again – possibly several times.
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