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THE MOST POWERFUL IDEA IN THE WORLD: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention

An excerpt from Chapter Four

Coal is such a critical ingredient for the Industrial Revolution that a significant number of historians have ascribed Britain’s industrial preeminence almost entirely to its rich and relatively accessible deposits. Thomas Newcomen’s engine, after all, ran on coal, and was used to mine it. One would scarcely expect to read a history of the steam engine, or the Industrial Revolution, without, sooner or later, encountering coal.

Encountering it in the same chapter that documents the rise of the experimental method is, perhaps, a little less obvious. But that proximity is neither sloppiness nor coincidence: the two are subtly, but inextricably, linked. The relationship between science and technology, as Kelvin observed, is a two-way street. The mechanism by which the steam engine was first developed, and then improved, was a function not only of a belief in progressive improvement, but of an acute awareness that incremental improvements could be measured by reducing cost; demand for Newcomen’s steam engine was bounded by the price of fuel per unit of work.

For a million years , the fuel of choice for humans was hydrocarbons, in the form of both wood and charcoal, but it did no work, in the mechanical sense. Instead, it was used exclusively to cook food, and combat the cold. Several hundred thousand years later, a group of South Asians, or possibly Middle Easterners, discovered that their charcoal fires also worked pretty well to turn metals into something easier to make into useful shapes, either by casting or bending. For both space heating and metalworking, wood, the original “renewable” fuel, was perfectly adequate; measured in British Thermal Units – as above, the heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water 10F – a pound of dry wood produces about 7,000 BTUs by weight; charcoal about 25% more. Only as wood became progressively scarcer did it occur to anyone that its highest value was as a construction material, rather than as a fuel. It takes some fourteen years to grow a crop of wood, and burning it for space heating or for smelting became a progressively worse bargain.

Europe’s first true “wood crisis” occurred in the late 12th century as a bit of collateral damage from a Christian crusade to destroy the continent’s tree-rich sanctuaries of pagan worship and open up enough farmland to make possible the European population explosion of the following centuries. A lot more Europeans meant a lot more wooden carts, wooden houses, and wooden ships. It also meant a lot more wood for the charcoal to fuel iron smelters, since smelting one pound of iron required the charcoal produced by burning nearly eight cubic feet of wood. By 1230, England had cut down so many trees for construction and for fuel that it was importing most of its timber from Scandinavia, and turned to what would then have been called an alternative energy source: Coal.

Coal consists, most importantly, of carbon, but it includes any number of other elements, including sulfur, hydrogen, and oxygen, that have been compressed between other rock, and otherwise changed by the action of bacteria and heat over millions of years. It originates as imperfectly decayed vegetable matter; imperfect because incomplete. When most of the plants that covered the earth three hundred million years ago, during the period not at all coincidentally known as the Carboniferous, died, the air that permitted them to grow to unimaginable sizes – trees nearly two hundred feet tall, for example – collected its payback in the form of corrosion. The oxygen-rich atmosphere converted most of the dead plant mater into carbon dioxide and water. Some, however, died in mud or water, where oxygen was unable to reach them. The result was the carbon-dense sponge known as peat. Combine peat with a few million years, a few thousand pounds of pressure, several hundred degrees of heat, and the ministrations of uncounted billions of bacteria and it develops through stages, or ranks, of “coalification”. The shorter the coalification process, the more the final product resembles its plant ancestors: softer and moister, with far more impurities, by weight.

Thus, each piece of coal is unique, the result of both different plant origins, and of differing histories of pressure, heat, and fermentation. What they have in common is that they all share the same relationship between time and energy: Over thousands of millennia, hydrogen and hydroxyl compounds are boiled and pushed out, leaving successively purer and purer carbon. The younger the coal, the greater the percentage of impurities, and the lower the ranking. In 14th century Britain, lower-ranked minerals like lignite and sub-bituminous coals were known as “sea coal”, a term with an uncertain etymology, but whose likeliest root is the fact that the handiest outcroppings were found along seams leading along the River Tyne to the North Sea.

Long before concerns about particulate pollution and global warming, coal had PR problems. Almost everyone in medieval England found the smell of the sea coal obnoxious, partly because of sulfuric impurities that put right-thinking Englishmen in mind of the devil, or at least rotten eggs; by the early 15th century, it was producing so much noxious smoke in London that King Edward I forbade burning it, with punishments ranging from fines to the smashing of coal-fired furnaces. The ban was largely ignored, as sea coal remained useful for space heating, though distasteful. Working iron, on the other hand, required a much hotter burning fuel, and in this respect the softer coals were inferior to the much older, and harder, bituminous and anthracites. Unfortunately, along with burning hotter and cleaner – a pound of anthracite, with a carbon content of between 86-98% by weight, produces 15,000 BTU, while a pound of lignite (which can be as little as one-quarter carbon) only about 4-8,000 BTUs – hard coal is found a lot deeper under the ground. Romans in Britain mined that sort of coal, which they called gagate, and we call jet, for jewelry, but interest in deep coal mining declined with their departure in the 5th century. It was not until the 1600s that English miners found their way all the way down to the level of the water table, and started needing a way to get at the coal below it....

Reviews for The Most Powerful Idea in the World

The Most Powerful Idea in the World is a sneaky history – ostensibly about the origins of the steam engine, though actually about much more.. As someone who spun an eclectic history from small things in his previous book, Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe, Rosen is a natural and playful storyteller, and his digressions both inform the narrative and lend it an eccentric and engaging rhythm…offering a forceful argument in the debate, which has gone on for centuries, over whether patents promote innovation or retard it... Either way, Rosen’s presentation of this highly intellectual debate will reward even those readers who never wondered how the up-and-down chugging of a piston is converted into consistent rotary motion."

John Schwartz in The New York Times Book Review

"Mr Rosen subscribes neither to the 'great man' or the 'historical inevitability' schools of history, and his account is wonderfully eclectic. Stalwarts of the industrial revolution such as Thomas Newcomen, a West Country engineer, rub shoulders with John Locke, a political philosopher, and Edward Coke, a lawyer and jurist who did much to shape the common-law traditions of intellectual property... The author dismisses the more traditional explanations about why the industrial revolution began in Britain—such as an abundance of coal or the insatiable demands of the Royal Navy—concluding, instead, that it was England’s development of the patent system that was the decisive factor. By aligning the incentives of private individuals with those of society, it transformed invention from a hobby pursued by the idle rich into an opportunity for spectacular commercial gain open to anyone with a bit of skill and a good idea. That allowed England to harness the creative potential of its artisan classes in a way that no other country had managed before. It is a plausible conclusion and Mr Rosen makes a powerful case."
The Economist

“Over the holidays, I read The Most Powerful Idea in the World, a brilliant chronicle by William Rosen of the many innovations it took to harness steam power… an entertaining narrative weaving together the clever characters, incremental innovations and historical context behind the engines that gave birth to our modern world…. Rosen has a facility for the telling anecdote and the quirky aside. Open nearly any page of the book and you’ll learn tidbits like that Abraham Lincoln had a love of things mechanical and is the only American president to be awarded a patent (for air chambers that add buoyancy to steam ships and other boats). Early in the book there’s a reference to “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and Aristotle in the same paragraph.”
Bill Gates in The Gates Notes &
The Annual Letter of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

"The book has a crackling energy to it, often as riveting as it is educational. Rosen, in pursuit of evidence, makes interesting, even exciting, such subjects as patent law from the Roman Tiberius on, technological innovation in ancient China and the role of practice in separating out accomplished performers from the 'merely good'...[the book] has a logical progression that's hard to refute — explored in chapters with titles like 'The Whole Thing Was Arranged in My Mind: Concerning the surprising contents of a Ladies Diary; invention by natural selection; the Flynn Effect; neuronal avalanches; the critical distinction between invention and innovation; and the merits of strolling on Glasgow Green.' The playfulness and invention evident in these descriptions carry over into chapters rich in detail and imbued with a sparkling intelligence."
Jerry Vandermeer in The Los Angeles Times

"Rosen delves into the psychology of invention, and praises now-forgotten men such as master engineer John Smeaton, who brought analytical rigor to what had largely been trial-and-error tinkering. But his core insight, and the source for his title, is that the Industrial Revolution depended on a constant outpouring of ideas: new inventions, refinements to old inventions, new uses for existing machines, and so on....Regardless of what one thinks of Rosen's core thesis, he is an able guide through some pretty dense scientific and intellectual thickets. And he has a knack for witty descriptions and analogies, which help the reader navigate the deeper waters. Seventeenth-century figures Edward Coke and Francis Bacon, he writes, "were so hostile to each other that they would have reflexively taken opposite sides on a debate over the best way to prepare roast beef."
Drew de Silver in The Seattle Times

"What William Rosen neatly does with his book, subtitled 'a story of steam, industry, and invention' is to manage to make this hugely important topic -- this is, after all, the story of the formation of the modern world -- fresh and interesting...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...An excellent book that should be essential knowledge for all of us in the modern world."
Brian Clegg in Popular Science

"The character sketches are good and the author has a whimsical touch sprinkled with humour....A fascinating section covers the thinking of inventors. Drawing on the work of others via a pyramid of genius, most inventors struggle for years with a problem until their eureka moment. Invention cannot be forced but certain conditions encourage it."
Fergus Mulligan in The Irish Times

"By exploring human development from the dawn of history, Rosen lays down important groundwork for the fascinating examination of the Industrial Revolution which forms the greater part of his book. This is history at its most accessible, and all the better for it."
Robert Colbeck in The Yorkshire Evening Post

"In this infectiously enthusiastic, all-encompassing investigation of steam power and the men who drove the industrial revolution, [Rosen] argues that Britain's competitive advantage derived not from the invention of steam power but from the army of backroom tinkerers who developed it...With greasy-fingered glee [he] describes the exact mechanisms of the self-acting valve, the plug rod, the F-shaped lever, and the splendidly (and onomotopoeically) named Snifting Clark that made the whole beast possible."
James McConnachie in The Sunday Times

"As [Rosen] states in this intriguing, witty account of the birth of steam power, [James Watt’s] walk on Glasgow Green was 'one of the best recorded, and most repeated, eureka moments since Archimedes leaped out of his bathtub.'"
Robin McKie in The Observer

"As a piston-driven primer not only to the processes of thought, labour, and collaborative generosity of the fathers of steam, this book runs along a new track like -- well, like a Rocket."
Iain Finlayson in The Times

"Why Britain? What was peculiar to a smallish island in north-west Europe that turned it into the first industrial nation? Rosen isn't the first writer to attempt an answer, but I can think of no other book that combines so many aspects of the story so clearly and elegantly its scope and lively intelligence make it the best kind of popular account. Anyone who has ever wondered over Britain's exceptional contribution to the modern world should read it."
Ian Jack in the Financial Times

“Central to Rosen’s account is his amply demonstrated thesis that 'inventions don’t just solve problems; they create new ones, which demand—and inspire—other inventions.' An immensely readable and droll stylist, Rosen even leavens his footnotes with humor. In a passing reference to Francis Bacon, he observes, ‘It is impossible to write about Bacon without mentioning Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, and the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Consider them mentioned."

"Rosen's narrative meanders between diverse subject threads from patent law through mining to physics and economics… his writing style is generally clear, with humorous asides, and with an overall approach reminiscent of the science historian and broadcaster James Burke. Readers will find thought-provoking this serious history of technological innovation and the veritable invention of our modern world"
Library Journal

“The Industrial Revolution inspires more academic theories than absorbing narratives. Rosen, however, crafts one from subplots that connect with primitive industrialism’s premier symbol: the steam engine…[It] provides Rosen with storytelling opportunities that include capital investors, scientists studying heat, and innovators who improved the machine from a stationary to a mobile power source.”

"[A] fascinating, wide-ranging narrative...A staggering work of epistemological research."

Kirkus Reviews (starred)