A 'Riveting' Book on the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution is a period of history that has long fascinated me. Largely because of the technological developments and sense of potential, and also for the way that engineering and modern business were shaped during the era. William Rosen wrote The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry & Invention as a history of the Industrial Revolution, so I read it with interest. On the cover, there's a excerpt from the L.A. Times review that simply says, "Riveting." Aside from deeply hoping that it was an intentional pun, I'm inclined to agree.

The Most Powerful Idea in the World (hereafter, MPIW) is built around the account of the steam engine Rocket and how its various pieces—steam technology, steel and accurate machining, coal, cotton, rails, and market demand—came together in a certain place at a certain time. Rocket won a short race that was held to award a contract for a Manchester – Liverpool railroad, but the author sees it as a nexus for many trends and developments of the Industrial Revolution and refers to it frequently.

Right in the introduction, the author asks why everything came together in the place and time that it did, and offers this theory (page xxiii):

The best explanation for the preeminence 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

Rosen points out that a large part of the success of these inventions was due to their application to products of mass appeal. For example, silk production was partially mechanized before cotton, but it is cotton that really took off as it was what ordinary people could afford. The author considers all the factors that have to come together for these kinds of markets to work: supply and demand need each other, and reliable transportation and communication between them are necessary. But when everything does come together as it did in 18th-Century Britain, the sum can be greater than its parts.

But the market that really catches his attention is the market for knowledge. Rosen discusses how craftsmen started buying pamphlets and books on best practices for their trade and seeking other avenues of continuing education to keep themselves competitive. More than that, Rosen focuses on the nascent patent system as a mechanism for incentivizing, rewarding, and publicizing invention. Of course patents are only as useful as the market that accompanies them and the enforcement regime, as Rosen writes:

An invention acquires a good bit of its value from the social system in which it is created

Although the early development and application of patents was his central thesis, I found some other topics he covered to be more interesting, so the remainder of this review will pay more attention to the latter.

Coal usage was a prominent part of the Industrial Revolution. I thought Rosen had an interesting perspective. Rather than emphasizing its ready availability in England, he focuses on the pressure that its cost had on the development of steam engines. Early steam engines were mainly used to pump water out of coal mines, and all steam engines used copious amounts of it. Using coal as a power source, instead of water or wind, had the benefit of spurring innovation because there was now a price on a key industrial input (water and wind power had negligible operating costs compared to their capital cost, but the same was not true of steam engines) and improvements in efficiency had a quantifiable pay-off:

The mechanism by which the steam engine was first developed, and then improved, was a function not only of a belief in progress, but of an acute awareness that incremental improvements could be measured by reducing cost.

One of the things that I found really interesting in this book was the descriptions of the lives of some of the key inventors during the Industrial Revolution and the social classes they came from.

Even though the U.K. was an Anglican country many of these people weren't. They were outside the establishment enough to see things differently (e.g. not getting an OxBridge education) and often had strong networks with others who had the same beliefs (e.g. Quaker Abraham Darby). In other ways, the U.K. was very tolerant for the time, leading some persecuted French Hugenots, including some inventors, to move there.

Another common theme in the lives of key figures in the Industrial Revolution that Rosen brings out is how many of them had both some level of education in math and science and also experience working with their hands. The abundance of educated craftsmen at the time had multiple sources: Many Scots had to go abroad to find opportunity and education was seen as a very portable investment; also younger sons of wealthy families were not able to inherit their father's property or position and had to acquire skills to make their own careers.

Rosen also sees this churning of society between classes as having a positive impact on the culture:

A literate population bound by the rule of law and exhibiting middle-class behaviours such as deferral of gratification and low levels of corruption is as valuable to a nation as it is to a business firm.

One of his strongest arguments for patents comes from comparing the inventors of 18th-Century Britain to the Royal Society and to their own contemporaries in France, both of which focused more on pure science than on technical applications. To even be a member of the Royal Society, one needed to be a "gentleman" (i.e. a landowner). Rosen points out that people who weren't already independently wealthy needed some tangible reward (not just the respect of their peers) for new discoveries—which is where the patent system was beneficial.

James Watt is an iconic figure of the Industrial Revolution because many of the trends of the era can be seen in his life. So he is a good illustration of this point:

Like an ever-growing percentage of his countrymen in the newly United Kingdom, Watt had acquired the tools necessary for scientific innovation—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.

Another aspect of MPIW that I enjoyed, especially as an engineer-in-training myself, were some of the descriptions of the various inventions and technologies of the era. I definitely learned some things about steam power, metallurgy, and machining from reading this book. For instance, Rosen did an excellent job distinguishing between engines that were powered by steam pressure and those that were powered by atmospheric pressure (leveraged by condensing steam to create a vacuum). The descriptions of how the engineering business was conducted in those early days (scopes of supply, different payment arrangements, etc.) was also interesting.

Outside of Britain, a chapter of MPIW takes some time to consider why the Industrial Revolution did not take off as early in some other countries. In France, the Revolution was a major set-back:

The same year that the British government was certifying a grant of incorporation for Boulton & Watt to design and sell steam engines, the French government was beheading Antoine Lavoisier, the chemist whose research on heat was central to the theory behind those engines.

Rosen parallels the English and French experiences with the differing views of Locke and Rousseau:

[Rousseau's] Second Discourse argued that the invention of any technology, by demonstrating that some are more gifted than others, promotes inequality and eventually tyranny. ... When in 1793 the Jacobins closed the Academie des Sciences on the logic that "the Republic does not need savants," they were channelling Rousseau.

I like how Rosen concludes MPIW. He writes:

The world still burns a lot of coal to turn water into steam.

And he goes on to discuss how continued invention (promoted by a patent system) offers probably the best route to climate solutions:

There may be no way to put the genie of sustained invention [that developped fossil fuel power in the first place] back in the bottle, but we can put the genie to work.

My own perspective is that this book is relevant to many other contemporary topics besides concerns about fossil fuels (and I'm sure the author would agree, that's just where he chose to end):

  • 3D printing and other similar technologies for distributed, customized, on-demand manufacturing certainly have some revolutionary potential. Being aware of history is a good way to prepare for the future.
  • The rise of the internet and personal computing in general have parallels to the Industrial Revolution and is perhaps the arena where patents are most controversial. Personally I think patents still have a role, but for things like telecommunications and software, shorter terms might better reflect the rapid development cycles.
  • I think the lives of many of the key inventors of the Industrial Revolution illustrate the value of a hands-on aspect to education. Shop classes (and coding, making electronics, and 3D printing to gain under-the-hood experience with the technologies of today) should be part of school, in my opinion.

Finally, I'll note that I read MPIW concurrently with historical fiction set ~100 years earlier (Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson), where some other trends that have shaped the modern world got started. Having these two books side-by-side lent some continuity to my perspective as the Royal Society and Locke's return to England in the Glorious Revolution figure in both.