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The Most Powerful Idea in the World – William Rosen ****

Histories of the industrial revolution are ten-a-penny, and often rather dull. What William Rosen neatly does with his book, subtitled ‘a story of steam, industry and invention’ is manage to make this hugely important topic – this is, after all, the story of the formation of the modern world – fresh and interesting.
I don’t know if it’s because the author is American that the book seemed particularly fresh – having that slight distance from a story that is mostly about Britain gives it an edge, and his inclusion of US context, which might well be missing from a UK version of this story, was valuable.
Of course we’ve got all the familiar characters here – Watt, Arkwright , Trevithick, Stephenson and the rest – but there is so much more. Rosen takes us on a journey (with plenty of side excursions) through the entire development of industrialization and leading to the crowning moment of the Rocket’s performance at the Rainhill Trials. What helps keep it interesting is the way that Rosen mixes details about the technology, the people and the nature of invention and innovation – so you’ll find lots of information on patent law (more interesting than it sounds) alongside the steam valves and thermodynamics. It really makes you think about the approach that should be taken to intellectual property.
Two of my grandparents worked in a cotton mill in Lancashire that was a direct descendent of the mills that are central to Rosen’s story, so I found this particularly interesting on a personal level, but you don’t have to have that connection to feel the importance of this story. It is about the transformation of a rural economy into an industrial one for the first time in history – a transformation that would be followed by the rest of the world. Just occasionally Rosen can be a little flowery in his language, or a little nerdy in his enthusiasm for some aspect of steam engine technology – but this is rare, and can be overlooked because of the quality of the book as a whole.
One of the things that makes this book so enjoyable is the detail of the research – the author clearly really likes diving into obscure detail, then bringing it out in a way that intrigues. I wish he hadn’t used footnotes – all the footnotes are worth reading, and would work much better as part of the main text – but that’s a small concern. I’m assuming that the research was thorough. There is one glaring error, but I’m guessing it’s just a slip where he relied on memory and it let him down (I’m always doing this in my books). He attributes the put-down ‘All science is either physics or stamp collecting,’ to Kelvin, where it was actually Rutherford who made this cutting remark.
All in all, though, an excellent book about an era that should be essential knowledge for all of us in the modern world.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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