Bob Morris Book Review – Blogging on Business

The most powerful idea in the world: A history of steam, industry and invention
William Rosen
Random House (2010)

Note: In an article written for the Wall Street Journal (January 26, 2013), Bill Gates explains why he believes this book is one of the most important written in recent years. I agree, as the following review indicates.

Who knew that when the Royal Patent Office in London issued a patent in 1698 for “Raising Water by the Propelling Force of Fire” (the idea referred to in the title of this book) 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 spans several separate but interdependent disciplines including law, natural sciences, economics, anthropology, history (ie, of people, societies, events, and ideas), mathematics, physics, and politics. I can’t remember a nonfiction book he’s read in recent years that he’s enjoyed more than this one. There are many reasons. Where to start?

Here are three. First, I really appreciate the breadth and depth of Rosen’s coverage of not just one topic (the development of steam engines) but an entire era before and during the Industrial Revolution. His narration tells a fascinating story, replete with a cast of memorable characters including Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, James Watt, Abraham Darby, Richard Arkwright, George Stephenson and his son Robert, and John Allen and Charles Porter. If most/all of those names are unfamiliar to you, all the more reason to read this book.) Rosen’s story also features dramatic conflicts, multi-level, multi-area plot developments, and brilliant analysis of an ongoing process of industrial innovation. in the 19th century, sustained fault-driven discovery.

I also appreciate Rosen’s masterful explanation of the interdependence of steam engines with coal, iron, and cotton. Machines made of iron drew water from coal mines to produce the fuel the machines needed to transport it to the steamboats so they could transport the cotton that would finance the entire enterprise. There are passages in the narrative where key multidisciplinary issues span history, economics, anthropology, sociology, history, psychology, and business.

My third reason is personal: Before reading this book, I knew next to nothing about most of the topics Rosen discusses with eloquent rigor, nor did I have much (if any) interest in them. I had the same reaction reading two of Steven Johnson’s books, the ghost map (2006) and Ai’s inventionr (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 indirectly) not only what is otherwise inaccessible but also, more specifically, to experience what is otherwise it would be unknown to me.

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