The Most Powerful Idea in the World

A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention

William Rosen, 2010, Beaverton 909.81 ROS

Rosen's "Most Powerful Idea" is government-issued patents.

The "deal" is that an inventor discloses details of an invention in return for the right to sue competitors who copy the invention. Rosen claims this is responsible for the rapid rise of industrialization in Regency England. He bases this on comparisons to other nations like (larger) France and (smaller) Holland, which did not produce as many inventions and did not have Britain's supposedly optimum patent laws.

He implies that the nascent patent system in the United States was even better, but only briefly in the epilogue, and (inevitably) quotes lawyer (and unsuccessful inventor) Abraham Lincoln's " ... added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius."

The focus of the book is the development of the steam engine, and the co-development of the British patent system. It begins with Savery's 1699 steam engine, then Newcomen's 1712 engine, then Watt's first 1765 external condenser engine. It concludes with Stephenson's 1829 Rocket.

Patent law develops from the Statute on Monopolies drafted by Coke in 1623. John Locke considered ownership a historical fact rather than a historical right (p63).

The book also describes ruinously expensive court battles, Luddite machine smashing, and engines of war. Midlands cloth mills driven by steam engines covered the region with soot, and cost many their jobs; the Napoleonic wars cost England its European markets. We live in the carbon fuel age; perhaps if carbon-fueled machines developed a little more slowly and cooperatively, English manufacturing would not have enabled the wars that eventually reduced Britain to effective bankruptcy today. The "what-if"s cut both ways.

I'd bet that the winning formula wasn't the right of inventors to get entangled in court with other inventors, but widespread literacy and respect for the rights of the "working man" ... the source of the inventors. Without patents, some might not have worked as hard to produce inventions fast, but others might have learned to collaborate and unite in the production of machines. Larger groups that included the talents of rising craftsmen might have succeeded by rapid and low-cost micro-evolution rather than large investments in secret development.

Chapter 9 of the book focuses on Henry Maudslay and his colleagues and disciples. Maudslay's quest for accuracy led to the Lord Chancellor micrometer, a workbench instrument with 1/1000 of an inch. Page 198 contains this key phrase: "sustained invention is incremental invention". This is in support of the Lord Chancellor's ability to measure those small improvements, but mechanical perfection is a combination of accuracy, observation, inspiration, and collaboration. The Lord Chancellor led to mechanical standards such as the '''British Standard Whitworth''' thread, which permitted makers of bolts and screws from across Britain (and later the world) to interchange and combine their products. Maudslay's tools helped scribe the first meter bars in Paris; the French metric system now defines modern civilization.

So - is innovation driven by government-anointed "inventors", or is invention a human trait that is mostly suppressed by the winner-takes-all patent system? Rosen makes his case very well, and defends it against some strawman alternatives, but does not demonstrate that the British result is the best possible result, merely the winner among the known alternatives. If a better alternative had won (and it might have been driven by biology rather than metal-and-steam), Rosen would have written his book about that alternativer.

Rosen died of gastrointestinal stromal cancer on April 28, 2016; that's sad, I was imagining him complaining about this essay so I could improve it. Some of the best collaborations are competitive, even adversarial. Perhaps that is the ultimate message of the book; many people are driven to climb above others, even if that means pushing them down rather than rising together with them.

Powerfulidea (last edited 2019-03-29 02:18:20 by KeithLofstrom)