Review: “The Most Powerful Idea in the World” by William Rosen

William Rosen’s book is an intriguing look at the history of the steam engine. While he would agree with those who argue for the importance of the steam engine in developing the modern world, that’s not the “most powerful idea” of his title.

Instead, Rosen is interested in the idea of patents – specifically whether patents foster or hinder innovation. Rosen comes down firmly on the pro-patent side of this debate, and while he makes a good argument in the case of the steam engine, an equally good one can be made that patents stifle innovation. The many patents owned by the Wright Brothers famously retarded development of airplanes in America until the U.S. Army stepped in during World War One. (As someone once wrote, the patent system is the “smother of invention”. That someone may be me. I can’t be bothered to Google it …)

But when it comes to the steam engine, Rosen argues the presence of a robust patent system was essential to its development. In fact, Rosen goes further, arguing the strong British patent system not only enabled development of the steam engine, but most of the innovations of the Industrial Revolution … and therefore the modern world. As he puts the case early on, “The best explanation for the pre-eminence of English speakers in lifting humanity out of its ten-thousand-year-long Malthusian trap is that the Anglophone world democratized the nature of invention.” Or as Abraham Lincoln put it, “The patent system … added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius”. (Lincoln is the only American president in history to have been granted a patent.)

It’s an intriguing argument, and even if you don’t accept his views on the importance/value of patents, Rosen’s book is an immensely readable popular history of the development of steam power. As a believer in the progressive development of steam power as a series of incremental improvements, he gives short shrift to those figures (such as Heron of Alexandria) who might feature in a more traditional “History of Steam”. Rosen is interested in the practical applications of steam, and is not terribly concerned with the underlying science or the thermodynamic implications. For the practical engineers, there was little concern with such things: they were interested in building better steam engines, and there was little indication that arty-farty science would help.

Because Rosen is as interested in patents as in engines, he takes a broader look at the social and legal situation than one would find in a more traditional approach to the development of steam power. We meet the lawyers and lawmakers who developed the British (and American) patent systems and watch as they grappled with the same debates as we face today: is a patent meant to be a reward for a clever idea, or a stimulus to future innovation? This issue seems particularly relevant today in the age of copyright, where ideas are accorded even more protection than patents were, and innovation is plagued by “patent trolls” who buy up inactive patents in the hopes of effectively blackmailing the real innovators later.

Rosen also takes aim at the image of the “heroic engineer”, so beloved of the Victorians. Instead, he argues that successful engineering, like science, is based on thousands of tiny modifications and contributions, so it is a mistake to lionize the Watts, Brunels and Stephensons unduly. The patent system, Rosen argues, helps enhance this system by making new patents publicly available. This means anyone can see what Watt, Brunel or Stephenson is doing, and suggest improvements. It democratizes innovation.

Necessity may well be the mother of invention, but Rosen argues the patent system is the midwife.

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