The Most Powerful Idea in the World

A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention

Q&A (and other stuff...)

The Bookmark Predicament


During the review of the catalog copy for The Most Powerful Idea in the World I noticed that the publisher had chosen to describe it as a work of “narrative nonfiction.” I objected to the phrase, arguing – I thought logically – that though the chapters were roughly chronological in order, it wasn’t really a narrative at all, but an “idea” book…one that examined an historical event (the invention of steam power) from several angles, including science, commerce, culture, law, and anything else that caught my interest during several years of research. “If you can swap one chapter with the other, without changing the basic appeal of the book” I continued, “it ain’t narrative.”

I know that they were getting at: It was narrative because it wasn’t a cookbook, or (slightly closer) how-to. I was being pedantic. And I lost the argument. But it started me thinking about the ways in which the sort of book I set out to write in The Most Powerful Idea in the World resembled “true” narrative nonfiction, or even fiction. Specifically, I got to wondering whether the pleasures of reading a novel were at all like the pleasures of reading a digressive book of ideas.

All authors of anything that approaches book length undertake the same challenge, whether or not it is consciously understood. This is the fact that reading a book, unlike almost every other form of entertainment, takes place over a period that usually runs into days, at the very least. The consequence of this fact, which distinguishes novels (and histories, biographies, memoirs, and other forms of “narrative nonfiction”) from traditional drama, live or electronic, is that readers customarily lay a book down during the process of reading it, only to pick it up a day or more later. This phenomenon, which we shall christen the “bookmark predicament,” obliges a book incorporate some mechanism that both pulls readers back to the text after a lot of intervening activity, and orients them once they get there.

We don’t really need any other explanation for the enduring popularity of plot-driven fiction genres like mystery and romance (and for their structural cousins in the nonfiction aisle; when someone gushes that this a particular book “nonfiction that reads like a novel” they aren’t comparing it to Thomas Pynchon). Though editors and critics frequently mention a book’s narrative “thrust”, they really mean its opposite: the way in which the author not only keeps readers turning pages, but pulls them back, time after time, to find out what happens next.

That’s great for novels, but, with few exceptions, it isn’t a real effective tool in writing either biography or history (though some practitioners are so unfairly gifted that they can make even a known conclusion, like the Allied victory at Normandy in June of 1944, nearly as thrilling.) More useful, for certain sorts of nonfiction, is exploiting political affinity to sustain reader interest: People, me included, love stuff that reinforces their preexisting beliefs, and the never-ending stream of books that show up on bestseller lists by agreeing with strongly held opinions, whether on American exceptionalism (or perfidy) or global climate change shows no signs of slowing. For me, though, the solution to the bookmark predicament in nonfiction lies in enticing the reader to find out why. To find out how things happened. My last book, a history of the first pandemic in human history, tried hard to make an argument that one reason medieval Europe emerged from the receding Roman Empire was the impact of a century of plague. It described, at either fascinating or exhausting length (reviewers can be found with both opinions) how the plague bacterium evolved, how it survived, and how it killed. Because I found it intriguing, I tried to trace the outline of the footprint that the 6th century imposed on the next thousand years. I’m very aware of how frequently I failed to do this, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t my goal.

And it doesn’t mean I don’t recognize it when other writers achieve it. There is a real frisson of pleasure watching the late Stephen Jay Gould demonstrating how some previously unexamined part of the natural world makes sense in the light of the constraints and power of natural selection. Or Stephen Pinker explaining the acquisition of language. Or Jared Diamond showing why the Europeans invaded the Americas, rather than the other way around. None of these feelings is quite the same as the anagnorisis that Aristotle described as the “transition from ignorance to knowledge”…but it feels like it. The “aha!” moment that comes at the end of Professor Gould’s essay on the changing appearance of Mickey Mouse has at least something in common with the “aha!” moment that comes when Elizabeth Bennet discovers Mr. Darcy’s true character. It’s not just that books that achieve this make you feel smarter (though they do). It seems to me, both as writer and reader, that the real satisfaction comes, not from the knowledge, per se, but from the transition.

And this, I think, is where the appeal of “narrative” nonfiction starts to resemble that of fiction. And even (stay with me) music. A musical composition or improvisation, no less than a novel of a biography, needs to sustain the interest of an audience over time, and – in western music anyway – the most common method for doing so is building tension by wandering away from a tonic chord, and releasing it by returning. As the audience’s ear is trained to expect such a release, the author/​composer/​instrumentalist can build tension by sustaining an unresolved “knot” and tease the reader/​listener by delaying the release. What works for a two-minute long pop song or a forty minute long concerto also works for a novel read over a long weekend; the phenomenon is robust enough that the tension can be sustained over hours and even days.

This doesn’t mean it’s easy to incorporate a tension-and-release technique into a book of ideas. For one thing, the method is highly dependent on the reader’s expectations about what a resolution looks like, and while this works pretty well for a military history (tension is created when battle is joined, and released when it is won or lost) or an exploration saga (expedition leaves; surmounts challenges; returns…or fails) it loses a lot of juice in a “narrative” about a bunch of interconnected ideas. The analogue, for this sort of book, is less musical than visual: the discovery of the needed piece for a section of a jigsaw puzzle.

In several decades of editing books written by others, I heard a thousand different reasons writers choose to write. My own pat answer – no less true for being practiced – is that I write the books that, if someone else wrote them, I’d want to read…and what I like to experience while reading is the joy of solving a jigsaw puzzle. The hoped-for experience of reading The Most Powerful Idea in the World is that readers relive the same pleasures I experienced in researching and organizing the material that forms it. When I finally taught myself, for example, the chemical difference between wrought iron and cast iron, and why the difference was so critical for the advent of steam power, I undertook to replicate the same “aha!” moment in the book. There are a hundred such moments in the book, and I can only hope that a decent number of readers suffers from the same affliction I do, and will therefore return to The Most Powerful Idea in the World in the same way that I return to a half-finished puzzle spread out on my dining room table.

A jigsaw puzzle piece is, after all, a very satisfactory sort of bookmark.

Newcomen's Atmospheric Engine

A whole book about the steam engine? Where did THAT come from?

I’d love to be able to share a story about riding a steam locomotive as a boy, and acquiring a fascination with the process by which boiling water was turned into power, and eventually into locomotion. Unfortunately, the last regularly scheduled steam engine in the United States made its last run fifty years ago; my boyhood experience with steam locomotives were in the form of an HO gauge electric train that I largely used as a prop in very elaborate tableaux involving dozens (maybe hundreds) of toy soldiers. A lot of fun (though hard on the soldiers; those trains could do some real damage) but scarcely the stuff of which lifelong obsessions grew.

The fact is that the idea for The Most Powerful Idea in the World was born while thinking about a book to follow Justinian’s Flea. My primary requirement, other than the need to pique the commercial instincts of a publisher, was that the next project keep me interested for two years of writing and research. This is a fairly high bar, given my short attention span. But I could have spent another five happy-but-impoverished years researching the birth of steam power, and industrialization.

The reason is simply that it’s a subject that brings together science (pure and applied) economics (ditto) political history, and an embarrassingly large number of fascinating characters.

Early in your book, you claim that the 18th century was the most significant one in human history; this is a pretty extreme statement, isn’t it?

Got your attention, though, didn’t it? Here’s my reasoning: In 1964, Granada TV in the UK started a series of documentaries following the lives of fourteen Britons, beginning when they were seven years old, and revisiting them every seven years; seven such snapshots of the participants’ lives have appeared (7UP, 14UP, 21UP…you get the idea) the last six directed by the filmmaker Michael Apted.

Now, imagine that an extraterrestrial Michael Apted, from a culture with very long lifespans (I spent many formative years reading science fiction) visited the Earth every seven hundred years, starting about the year 9000BCE…a slightly arbitrary date, but right around the time that groups of scattered human tribes started the long climb to civilization by discovering that food could be farmed, rather than simply hunted or gathered.

The global human population at that moment was perhaps five million. Two visits later, the alien Apteds would certainly have noticed the world’s first cities, at Catal’huyuk in present-day Turkey, and Jericho in what is now Israel. Over the course of the anthropological expedition’s first dozen trips, they would have noticed an almost inexorable rise in human population, to more than five hundred million. By the time of their 1600 AD visit, humanity had changed dramatically; cities now housed up to a million people. This inventive species had come up with written language, wheels, ploughs, metalworking, gunpowder, paper, and sailing ships. The Old World had encountered the New.

But, if the visitors were careful to investigate the life of the average human, they would have also discovered that while there were a lot more of them, they weren’t doing a lot better. The average human living in 1600CE produced about as much per capita as his many-times-great grandfather had done in 800BCE. They lived about as long, ate about the same number of calories, owned about the same number of articles of clothing, buried the same number of children, traveled about as far – and as fast – from their birthplaces.

Between the twelfth and thirteenth trip, however, per capita human productivity, which had been flat as a pancake since the discovery of agriculture – around $600 a year in 1990 $US – grew. A lot, though not at first. By 1800, it was a little less than $700. By 1870, more than $1200. By the time we get ready to greet the documentarians on their next trip, the average human will be producing more than $7000 annually.

The reasons were many. But the decisive one was this: Humans learned how to boil water to create steam, and how to use that steam to run machines.

How could the steam engine be responsible for the Industrial Revolution if, as you point out in your book, people were making them nearly two thousand years ago?

This is one of the central questions for any history of the period. In my judgment, the answer is that the steam engine of late antiquity – a sort of turbine made to entertain the leisure classes of 2nd century Alexandria – wasn’t the same machine that Thomas Newcomen placed over the mines near Dudley Castle in 1712. This is not to say that the laws of physics and mechanics that governed both machine’s operations were different (though the first Newcomen engines didn’t use the expansive properties of steam at all; they were driven by atmospheric pressure on the vacuum created when steam condensed back into water). The steam engines of the early 18th century, however, weren’t made by toymakers for an audience of aristocrats, but by artisans for their customers...and there are always a lot potential inventors in the latter, than the former. Since the steam engines of Newcomen, Watt, Trevithick, and Fulton were collections of hundreds of separate innovations, they could never evolve in a culture that didn’t provide a never-ending supply of innovators.

Why were so many of the inventions we associate with the Industrial Revolution born in the same place?

The trillion dollar question. The simplest answer, it seems to me, is that 18th century Britain was the first culture to democratize the process of invention successfully, and persistently. Since steam power (and textiles, and railroads, and ultimately electricity and everything else we associate with modern industrialism) is critically dependent on a perpetual supply of inventors intent on surpassing the work of other inventors, attracting inventors from the social classes that had traditionally been too busy earning a living was an utter necessity. The only durable way of attracting them (as opposed to the aristocrats who could afford to regard inventing as leisure) was by giving them an ownership stake in their ideas…and the British patent system was, probably unintentionally, the first one to do so.

Your book is full of stories of inventors and inventions; if you had to rank them in order of importance, who comes in first?

However much I tried to avoid following the historical me-too-ism that has made James Watt the public face of the Industrial Revolution, I regularly failed. Though Watt didn’t, of course, “invent the steam engine” (his most famous invention, the separate condenser, did double the amount of work it could do for a given amount of coal) the large number of the innovations he did produce, by himself and with others – in addition to the separate condenser, they include the planetary gear, the “Watt linkage” (still used in half of today’s automobiles) and the double-acting engine – gives him a large claim on the title of the most productive inventor, at least before Thomas Edison. More importantly, he was simultaneously a scientist, able to understand and improve on the mathematics of Euler and the thermodynamics of Joseph Black, and an artisan trained to the highest level of professional artistry in the same guild that counted John Harrison – inventor of the first marine chronometer and hero of Dava Sobel’s Longitude as a member. Most important of all, for those who accept the notion that the distinctive character of the Industrial Revolution was the public recognition and legal sanction it gave to intellectual property, Watt is even more important, as his generation’s most active and articulate defender of the rights of inventors.

You also distinguish between micro-inventions and macro-inventions; what’s the difference?

One of degree, of course: the macro-inventions are the ones that get all the ink – the light bulb; the semiconductor; the separate condenser. Micro-inventions are usually the components of the machines with which the macro-inventions are most closely associated; a good example from the history of steam power is Matthew Murray’s 1797 “D-valve” (so-called for its shape), which controlled the flow of steam. Earlier self-acting valves had been relatively heavy, and required a not inconsiderable amount of the engine’s own steam power to lift…and every bit of energy that went into lifting a valve was not available for any other work. The lighter the valve, the more efficient the engine, and the D-valve weighed less than half its predecessor. The valve’s shape was likewise a cost saver: it absorbed less heat than its predecessor, thus increasing engine efficiency, since every bit of heat used to heat up the engine parts was no longer available to make steam.

The aggregate importance of such small improvements is, however, even more important than the better-known macro-inventions. The latter are, almost by definition, acts of unpredictable genius, but a culture that depends on perpetual innovation also depends on incremental improvement…and those increments are measured out in micro-inventions like Richard Trevithick’s fusible plug, Murray’s d-valve, and a thousand others.

(Perhaps even more important than macro- or micro-inventions are what might be called “meta-inventions” including the skills of experiment and measurement, and the concept of intellectual property.)

The “invention” of intellectual property? How could such a thing be invention?

Even non-intellectual property isn’t a universal concept. Western jurisprudence, going back to the Romans has tended to glom three related concepts – physical control, right to use, and ability to transfer ownership – into one thing called “property” but it hasn’t always been a smooth ride. In the Middle Ages, something called seisin (ownership without right to sell) was frequently invoked; without estates being “entailed” Jane Austen would have had trouble writing a short story. The Roman idea of usufructus gave a property right in the fruits of a piece of land without any grant of control or conveyance.

Despite several thousand of years of property jurisprudence, the notion that ideas were something that could be bought and sold is very late in coming. The reasons are complicated (feel free to read the book) but the really profound invention – or, perhaps, discovery – dates to the 17th century, which is when Edward Coke wrote England’s first patent law (the so-called “Statute on Monopolies”). When John Locke realized, in his Second Treatise on Government, that property was created whenever labor – physical or intellectual – was added, he also argued that it was, therefore, a natural right…one that predated government. In this, he had things backward: A piece of land, or a horse, or a pound of sugar is just as valuable on one side of a national border as the other; but an idea, utterly dependent on the legal sanction of the state, and is therefore the most unnatural of rights.

There’s no end to the present-day debate about [pick one of the following two…]
• using coal or other fossil fuels to boil water for power
• whether we should be protecting intellectual property as much as we do
Are there any lessons from the 18th century that can illuminate that debate?


At least two: First, global warming is, in historical terms, a bit like obesity: a high-class problem to have, since the alternative, for millennia, has been poverty and famine. If there is a lesson from the 18th century that really has something to teach us today, however, it is that the lowest-cost fuel always wins…and that the only way to keep several trillion tons of dirty, easily mined coal from pumping unreasonable amounts of carbon dioxide (and dozens of other, less benign compounds) into the atmosphere is either an alternative source of energy, or a reliable and affordable method of sequestration. Both demand the highest levels of innovation, and, therefore, some incentive for that innovation.

The best incentive, historically, is a limited grant of property for the innovator’s ideas. Though, to be sure, patents are not the only measure of inventiveness. In fact, to a large number of contemporary opinion makers, taking potshots at the patent system has become almost a sign of intellectual respectability. Much of their scorn is aimed at the seemingly trivial character of most patents: The individual who overtook Thomas Edison as the most prolific American patent holder, Donald Weder of Highland, Illinois, collected more than 1,300 patents exclusively in the field of flower and plant arrangement: the most recent one (Patent # 7266925) was awarded for a "Pot having a plant cover secured thereto.”

Less entertaining, but more pernicious, are well-known abuses of the system by its wealthier beneficiaries: pharmaceutical companies receiving patent protection on drugs that are virtually indistinguishable from no-longer-protected predecessors; agricultural businesses blocking publication of negative research results on patented seeds. Such abuses are nothing new, nor are critiques of them. Matthew Boulton spent the spring of 1775 in London lobbying Parliament for a twenty-five year extension on the steam engine patent owned by his partner, James Watt…an arm-twisting exercise opposed by the Father of Conservatism himself, Edmund Burke.

In addition, many economic historians have found high levels of historical innovation in countries with little or no patent protection – though they also found that, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, those countries tended to lack the population necessary for patents to be valuable, and as a result depended on larger nations to make major breakthroughs. There is even a strain in modern thought that is hostile to the idea of invention itself, or at least to the technology-driven societies whose existence depend so utterly on perpetual innovation. Part of that critique is environmental: the belief that even if humanity has prospered by (among other things) burning fossil fuels, the planet has suffered far more. And part of it is moral: the benefits of technology have accrued to one group of nations, while the costs have been borne by the nations they have, in some way, exploited. Both arguments are appealing, in the way that nostalgia always is. But they are also wrong.











The UK edition, published by Jonathan Cape

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