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The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry and Invention
Published by EH.Net (August 2012)
William Rosen, The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010. xxv + 371 pp. $28 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4000-6705-3.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Alessandro Nuvolari, Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies.
This book is an account of the origins of the Industrial Revolution for lay readers. The thread of the narrative is represented by a detailed study of the breakthrough innovations of the period: the steam engine, iron production techniques, the mechanization of textile production, and the early development of machine tools. In particular, the main focus of attention is on the development of steam power technology from the early pioneering attempts of Savery and Papin to Stephenson’s locomotive. This choice is effectively justified in the introduction where Rosen (a former publisher and editor) effectively summarizes what was the salient feature of this historical turning point: “the Industrial Revolution was, first and foremost, a revolution in invention ... a radical transformation in the process of invention itself” (p. x). But, Rosen’s book has a broader scope than traditional popular books on the history of technology. Rosen is interested in the economic origins and the economic consequences of inventions. This is precisely the main novelty of the book, which may be considered as a very ambitious attempt to produce an intriguing blend of history of technology and economic history accessible to a large audience. The premises are excellent because Rosen is a talented story-writer and his narrative is engaging. Unfortunately, however, the book does not succeed. It may actually do more harm than good, because it risks popularizing a view of the origins of the Industrial Revolution that is far too simplistic.
Overall the book is like the proverbial curate’s egg in which the good parts are not really able to redeem the final result. In matters of history of technology Rosen is erudite and exceptionally well read, but his attempt of summarizing the economic history literature on the industrial revolution (as testified also by the sparse references cited in the footnotes) is narrow and unduly selective. Rosen adopts a mono-causal explanation of the Industrial Revolution: he ascribes the critical role to the development of patent laws which ensured that ideas could become the subject of property rights. In his view, the patent system emerging from the Statute of Monopolies in 1624 provided the fundamental incentive for inducing skilled craftsmen and artisans to engage systematically in inventive activities. Of course, Rosen is not the first to draw attention to the role of the patent system in British industrialization. There is a long lasting debate on the subject featuring economic historians such as Douglass North, David Landes, Harry Dutton, Richard Sullivan, Joel Mokyr and Christine MacLeod. But Rosen does not adequately take into account this literature and, as a result, his assessment of the connection between inventive activities and patents is ultimately not convincing.
In particular, Rosen does not properly consider the large volume of inventive activities undertaken outside the coverage of patent protection. Christine MacLeod, in Inventing the Industrial Revolution (Cambridge, 1988), noticed that many innovative industries of the Industrial Revolution were systematically characterized by low propensity to patent. This finding has been recently corroborated by the research of Petra Moser who finds that only 11.1 percent of the 6,377 British inventions put on display at the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851 were patented. Rosen mentions Moser's research (p. 264) but he does not seem to fully realize its implications. Since a significant volume of inventive activities was undertaken without resorting to patents, it is highly likely that inventors could effectively adopt a number of alternative “appropriability” strategies such as lead times, secrecy, reputation, etc. in order to profit from their inventions. But, if this is case, the role of the patent system as the fundamental driver of innovation in this historical phase is in need of serious qualification.
Another issue to which Rosen does not give enough attention is the cost of taking and enforcing a patent in England. This is indeed quite curious. Following the work of Kenneth Sokoloff and Zorina Khan, Rosen remarks that in comparison to the U.S. patent system, the English system was characterized by very high fees and unwieldy administrative procedures. The point of Khan and Sokoloff is precisely that the U.S. patent system was the first patent institution of the world to be truly “democratic,” granting access to intellectual property rights to a very large segment of the population. However, in other sections of the book (for example on p. xxiii), Rosen seems oblivious of the limited accessibility of the English patent system which is described as giving to “an entire nation’s unpropertied populace ... an incentive to produce [ideas] and to acquire the right to exploit them.”
Concerning the effects of technical change, Rosen describes the development and adoption of steam power as triggering a sudden and momentous transformation of the British economy. In this case, Rosen’s assessment of the economic impact of steam power does not duly take into account the contributions of von Tunzelmann and Crafts, who have shown that steam power actually gave a significant contribution to aggregate productivity growth only from the 1840s.
It is also unfortunate that a number of inaccuracies and confusions clutter the text. The duty of steam engines is mistakenly reported in thousands of pounds of water raised one foot high by the consumption of a bushel of coal, rather than in millions (p. 296). Patents are wrongly assumed to have been routinely included in the capital stock of traditional growth accounting exercises a la Solow (p. 252). Paul Romer’s model of endogenous growth is allegedly believed not to yield an equilibrium steady state growth rate (p. 256). Joseph Bramah is described as member of the British and not of the Royal Society of Arts (p. 191). Boulton and Watt are mistakenly reported to have sued Jonathan Hornblower, the inventor of the compound engine, for patent infringement, when, instead, they sued his brother Jabez Carter and his partner Maberley (p. 208). Donald Cardwell is described as an economic historian, rather than as an historian of science and technology (p. 318). Finally, the reader will be surprised to discover that the term Malthusian trap “has been in general use for centuries” (p. xvi).
There is surely a general surge of interest in the origins of the British Industrial Revolution among the general public, but I am afraid this book, although entertaining, is too selective and unbalanced in taking stock of the recent research in economic history to be recommended to fit the bill. Hence, until a new attempt is made, for those willing to approach the subject from outside, it is probably worthwhile to put in some extra effort and read recent scholarly contributions such as Robert Allen’s The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective or Joel Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy.
Alessandro Nuvolari is Associate Professor of Economic History at Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, Pisa, Italy. He has written several articles on the development of steam power technology and on the patent system during the British Industrial Revolution. E-mail: email@example.com.
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