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

Recently I finished reading the book The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. The author’s key statement is that industrial revolution was first and foremost, a revolution in invention, and the industrial revolution took place in England because “its unique combination of law and circumstances.” Here are some interesting sentences from the book.

  1. Before the eighteenth century, inventions were either created by those wealthy enough to do so as a leisure activity (or to patronize artisans to do so on their behalf), or they were kept secret for as long as possible. In England, a unique combination of law and circumstance gave artisans the incentive to invent, and in return obliged them to share the knowledge of their inventions.
  2. Papin was an industrial scientist before there was an industry to employ him, which made him, in consequence, completely dependent on patronage.
  3. The most powerful pumps in use in seventeenth-century England were operated by waterwheels, but nothing obliged rivers and streams to be convenient to mines; finding an alternative machine that could overcome water’s tendency to seek the lowest level of any excavation meant that vacuum was no longer a purely philosophical concept.
  4. IN ITS ORIGINAL MEANING, the word “patent” had nothing to do with the rights of an inventor and everything to do with the monarch’s prerogative to grant exclusive rights to produce a particular good or service.
  5. In Darcy vs. Allein, Chief Justice Popham ruled that Darcy’s grant was forbidden on several grounds, all of which violated the common law. Crown could not grant a patent for the private benefit of a single individual who had shown no ability to improve the “mechanical trade of making cards,” because by doing so it barred those who did. In other words, the court recognized that the nation could not grant an exclusive franchise to an individual unless that individual had demonstrated some superior “mastery” of a particular trade.
  6. The term of the patent was not to exceed fourteen years, a figure that makes sense only in terms of the artisans for whom Coke was so solicitous. Since the traditional seventeenth-century apprenticeship lasted seven years, a term of fourteen years would allow at least two cycles of apprentices to have been trained in the new industry, and therefore a generation of artisans to demonstrate their mastery of the new art.
  7. The first, the so-called civil law tradition, is a direct successor to the jurisprudence of the Roman Empire, and it dominates most of the legal systems of continental Europe; the second is the institution known as the common law, used in Britain and its former colonies.
  8. As Coke put it, under the common law, every man’s house is his castle, not because it is defended by moats or walls, but because while the rain can enter, the king may not; under the civil law, the king is bound by nothing at all.
  9. Recognition of a property right in ideas was the critical ingredient in democratizing the act of invention. However imperfectly, Coke’s patent system, combined with Locke’s labor theory of value, offered a protected space for inventive activity. The protected space permitted, in turn, the free flow of newly discovered knowledge: the essence of Francis Bacon’s program. Once a generation of artisans discovered they could prosper from owning, even temporarily, the fruits of their mental labor, they began investing that labor where they saw the largest potential return. Most failed, of course, but that didn’t stop a trickle of inventors from becoming a flood
  10. An adult human is able to convert roughly 18 percent of the calories he consumes into work, while a big hayburner like a horse or ox is lucky to hit 10 percent—one of the reasons for the popularity of slavery throughout history.
  11. One can make a water mill more powerful, but one cannot, in any measurable way, reduce its operating expenses. The importance of this can scarcely be underestimated as a spur to the inventive explosion of the eighteenth century. So long as wind, water, and muscle drove a civilization’s machines, that civilization was under little pressure to innovate. Once those machines were driven by the product of a hundred million years of another sort of pressure, innovation was inevitable.
  12. It is almost irresistibly tempting to see Watt’s life as the embodiment of the entire Industrial Revolution. An improbable number of events in his life exemplify the great themes of British technological ascendancy. One, of course, was his early experience with the reactionary nature of a guild economy, whose raison d’être was the medieval belief that the acquisition of knowledge was a zero-sum game; put another way, the belief that expertise lost value whenever it was shared. Another, as we shall see, was his future as the world’s most prominent and articulate defender of the innovator’s property rights. But the most seductive of all was Watt’s simultaneous residence in the worlds of pure and applied science—of physics and engineering. The word “residence” is not used figuratively: The workshop that the university offered its new Mathematical Instrument Maker was in the university’s courtyard, on Glasgow’s High Street, a bare stone’s throw from the Department of Natural Philosophy.
  13. Like an ever-growing percentage of his countrymen in the newly United Kingdom, Watt had acquired the tools necessary for scientific invention—the hands of a master craftsman, and a brain schooled in mathematical reasoning—without the independent income that could put those tools to work exclusively for the betterment of mankind.
  14. Watt needed capital. Investment capital, however, wasn’t easy to find in 1765 Britain; and it was a lot harder than it had been fifty years earlier. The reason was one of the greatest financial bubbles in history, the collapse of the South Seas Company.
  15. Though the most famous inventors are associated in the popular imagination with a single invention—Watt and the separate condenser, Stephenson and Rocket—Watt was just as proud of the portable copying machine he invented in 1780 as he was of his steam engine; Stephenson was, in some circles, just as famous for the safety lamp he invented to prevent explosions in coal mines as for his locomotive.
  16. Inventors are significantly more thing-oriented than people-oriented, more detail-oriented than holistic. They are also likely to come from poorer families than non-inventors in the same professions. No surprise there; the eighteenth-century Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli,11 who coined the term “human capital,” explained why innovation has always been a more attractive occupation to have-nots than to haves: not only do small successes seem larger, but they have considerably less to lose.
  17. If the most important invention of the Industrial Revolution was invention itself, the automation of precision has to be one of the top three.
  18. Micrometers, devices for measuring very small increments, were then only about thirty years old; James Watt himself had produced what was probably the world’s first in 1776, a horizontal scale marked with fine gradations and topped with two jaws, one fixed and the other moved horizontally by turning a screw.
  19. The availability of patent protection was, predictably, motivating inventors to make more inventions; it was also motivating them to frustrate competing inventions from anyone else.
  20. Nearly fifty years later, the first description of the spinning jenny (“jenny” is a dialect term for “engine” in Lancashire) appeared in the September 1807 issue of The Athenaeum, in which readers learned that the first one was made “almost wholly with a pocket knife.
  21. Prior to the introduction of the jenny, Britain’s spinning was performed largely by what we would call independent contractors: the original cottage industrialists, taking raw materials from manufacturers who “put out” for contract the production of finished fabric.
  22. One of the more obdurate rules of economics, however, is that, given their capital demands, factories are preferable to more flexibly “outsourced” labor only if they are more productive.
  23. A great artisan can make a family prosperous; a great inventor can enrich an entire nation.
  24. Smith argued that two conditions were necessary for labor to produce the maximum amount of wealth: perfect competition among sellers—everyone pursuing his or her selfish interest, the famous “invisible hand”—and the complete freedom of buyers to substitute one commodity for another.
  25. A family living alone grows its own wheat and bakes its own bread; it takes a village to support a baker, and a town to support a flour mill. Some critical mass of people was needed to provide enough customers to make it worthwhile to invest in ovens, or looms, or forges, and until population levels reached that critical level, overall growth was severely limited.
  26. Because knowledge is the sort of property that can be sold to multiple consumers without lowering the value to any of them—Romer termed it nonrivalrous.
  27. The remarkable growth of the Netherlands during the 1600s essentially stopped a century later, and the only persuasive reason is size, or rather scale. A small country can shelter the world’s largest banks, shipbuilders, and even textile manufacturers, but since it can protect inventors only from their own countrymen, growth that depends on the creation of new knowledge is fundamentally unsustainable, like a nuclear chain reaction with insufficient critical mass.
  28. that heat and motion are essentially the same thing. This was critical, and surprisingly slow in coming.
  29. Fitch’s steamboat was not, as many histories have it, the world’s first. In 1772, two ex–artillery officers in the French army, the Comte d’Auxiron and Charles Monnin de Follenai, received a fifteen-year exclusive license to run a steamboat along the Seine. Unfortunately, their first attempt, a marriage of a Newcomen engine to a Seine bâteau, was less than successful: the engine was so heavy it sank the boat. Slightly more successfully, in 1785, the Marquis de Jouffroy d’Abbans took a 140-foot boat mounting a Newcomen-style engine out on the Saône from Lyon. He did make it all the way back to the dock, where cheering crowds met it—just in time, before the engine’s vibrations destroyed the boat.
  30. Evans was a visionary and a pioneer. But despite his prediction that “the time will come, when people will travel in stages moved by steam engines from one city to another almost as fast as birds can fly,” his greatest contribution to the history of steam locomotion was almost incidental: his decision to share the design of his boiler and high-pressure steam engine with his compatriots in Britain.
  31. Fusible plug is a small lead cylinder inserted into a predrilled hole in the wall of the engine’s boiler—a hole that, in a properly operating engine, would always be underwater. If, however, the water level in the boiler were to fall low enough to become dangerous, the heat would melt the lead plug,Trevithick’s engine, the first driven by high-pressure steam, earned him a considerable claim on the title “father of railways,” but the birth of steam locomotion was still a decade or so in the future. More important, though less romantic, was another of Trevithick’s innovations, one that was nearly as large an improvement over the first high-pressure design as that had been over the Boulton & Watt separate condensing

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