The Most Powerful Idea in the World

The Most Powerful Idea in the World  (2012) by William Rosen looks at how the Industrial Revolution happened and how in a fairly small island off Europe fossil fuels were first harnessed which in turn led to the enormous increase in wealth over the past 200 years.

The book is well written and very much worth reading for people who are interested in the technology and concepts that changed humanity. Rosen asks the question as to why it was in Britain, rather than in China that this happened. Rosen credits the patents system substantially.

The book has more substance than books by Jared Diamond, Alain de Botton or Malcolm Gladwell. It’s more like a book by Simon Winchester. It isn’t extending an idea that could be well expressed in an essay and stretching it into a book. The book covers a lot of historical ground.

The weaknesses of the book are that it jumps around and doesn’t have a strong non-fiction narrative the way, say, Michael Lewis books do and that not enough figures and illustrations are used. You can fill in the gaps by looking around the web but it would be good to have it in the book. The book is criticized by some reviewers for not having enough technical detail but it should be clear that this is not purely a technical history of steam engines.

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