The Most Powerful Idea in the World

  • by William Rosen
  • Narrated by Michael Prichard
  • 13 hrs and 29 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

If all measures of human advancement in the last hundred centuries were plotted on a graph, they would show an almost perfectly flat line - until the eighteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution would cause the line to shoot straight up, beginning an almost uninterrupted march of progress.
In The Most Powerful Idea in the World, William Rosen tells the story of the men responsible for the Industrial Revolution and the machine that drove it - the steam engine. In the process, he tackles the question that has obsessed historians ever since: What made 18th-century Britain such fertile soil for inventors? Rosen's answer focuses on a simple notion that had become enshrined in British law the century before: that people had the right to own and profit from their ideas.
The result was a period of frantic innovation revolving particularly around the promise of steam power. Rosen traces the steam engine's history from its early days as a clumsy but sturdy machine, to its coming-of-age driving the wheels of mills and factories, to its maturity as a transporter for people and freight by rail and by sea. Along the way, we enter the minds of such inventors as Thomas Newcomen and James Watt; scientists, including Robert Boyle and Joseph Black; and philosophers John Locke and Adam Smith - all of whose insights, tenacity, and ideas transformed first a nation and then the world.
Rosen is a masterly storyteller with a keen eye for the "aha!" moments of invention and a gift for clear and entertaining explanations of science. The Most Powerful Idea in the World will appeal to anyone who is fascinated with history, science, and the hows and whys of innovation itself.


Audible Editor Reviews

The story of Rocket — an iconic steam locomotive designed by Robert Stevenson and now on display in London’s British Science Museum — serves as the introduction and thrilling ending to The Most Powerful Idea in the World, William Rosen’s fascinating book about the Industrial Revolution.
Listening to Michael Prichard read Rosen’s thoroughly researched book feels like sitting in on a phenomenal college lecture. Prichard’s matter-of-fact intonation perfectly suits Rosen’s material and is reminiscent of a narrator you might hear on a History Channel documentary.
The book essentially explains how the Industrial Revolution evolved and explores the innovations that led to the creation of Rocket. Rosen examines steam power, pistons, heat, privacy laws, and some of the other famous early mechanized inventions, and reveals why many of these innovations occurred in England and Scotland and not elsewhere in Europe or the rest of the world. By themselves, the various topics can at first seem completely unrelated. But Rosen makes a persuasive argument and clearly illustrates how one small innovation after another led to the creation of the modern steam engine, which literally served as the driving force of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution.
Many historical books can be very dry and hard to comprehend, but Rosen delivers his descriptions about many of the world’s first modern machines in a way that’s engaging and easy to understand. The Most Powerful Idea in the World will make you look at the world in a completely different way and give you a greater appreciation for the machines we so often take for granted in our modern society. —Ken Ross


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

A Revelation about a Revolution

Essentially, this book tells the story of the invention and development of the steam engine. Rosen has taken this story from the Industrial Revolution through great story telling and incorporation of subplots. I was surprised by the result. The book exceeded my expectations in terms of content, presentation, and impact. I had never given the steam engine much thought and I regret my oversight. Rosen writes well, Michael Prichard's reading is outstanding. If you want to know something about the Industrial Revolution this is a good book. If you are not interested in the Industrial Revolution - try this volume anyway.
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- Roy


In William Rosen's masterful new book, The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, the most powerful idea is not the invention of the steam engine. Rather, the title refers to the development of the concept that ideas can be property, and that through the availability of patent law and capital, individuals tinkerers can become industrial scale innovators.

Rosen notes that: "From 1700 to 2000, the world's population has increased twelvefold - but its production of goods and services a hundredfold". (page 316) Will the innovations around digital technology, from cheap and powerful mobile computing devices to robust cloud based applications, bring about a commensurate rise in productivity as the industrial revolution? The steam engine allowed the cost of energy to come down rapidly, through its original use as the power source to pump out coal mines to its subsequent use in locomotives to bring down the costs of transporting coal. Today, it is less clear if digital technologies can bring about similar improvements in the productivity of education (increased access and quality at reduced costs), that the steam engine did for energy productivity in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is ironic that the very intellectual property protections that catalyzed the willingness of inventors and entrepreneurs to invest their energy and money into the steam engine that are perhaps retarding innovations in education. Much of our current economic prosperity is built on the concept that ideas are property, yet many of the barriers to extending learning at low cost run up against this principle. Efforts to extend the infrastructure and content of learning outside of the marketplace, through open source and open educational content, have failed to significantly bring costs down or increase access.
Are we in the midst of an educational revolution powered by technology? Or are we grafting new technologies on old structures, changing education only at the margins?
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- Joshua Kim "mostly nonfiction listener"

Book Details

  • Release Date: 06-01-2010
  • Publisher: Tantor Audio