British Isles Friday logoWelcome to British Isles Friday! British Isles Friday is a weekly event for sharing all things British and Irish — reviews, photos, opinions, trip reports, guides, links, resources, personal stories, interviews, and research posts. Join us each Friday to link your British and Irish themed content and to see what others have to share. The link list is at the bottom of this post. Pour a cup of tea or lift a pint and join our link party!

Last week, I reviewed the series Endeavour, a prequel to the Inspector Morse mysteries. Tina reviewed the mystery novel, The Chalk Man. Mike published a huge resource — all the big anniversaries in British history that are taking place in 2018. Becky read two classics, Framely Parsonage and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and a mid-20th century novelization of the later years of Queen Victoria, The Widow of Windsor. Sim is trying to solve a family mystery about her British father’s time in Libya. We welcomed a new participant to our link party last week — Gaele and her I Am, Indeed blog. She shared a historical British romance, It Takes Two to Tumble, and a contemporary British village romance, Springtime at the Cider Kitchen.

Book: The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention by William Rosen
Genre: Nonfiction
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: 2010
Pages: 370

Source: Rick purchased it and suggested that I read it when I expressed a desire for a deeper understanding of early steam engines.

The Most Powerful Idea in the World by William Rosen

A Story of Steam , Industry, and Invention

Summary: Why did the steam engine emerge on the island of Great Britain in the 18th and 19th century? The basic principles were known to the Greeks. The Chinese had coal. Other countries had relatively educated populations and more people to draw from for their inventors.

Rosen argues that the British developed a unique innovative culture. Before this time, inventions were kept secret as long as possible so that the original inventor could make money on it. Since sharing information is required for an innovative culture, secrets benefited the businesses that had them, but not the field of study. Also, there was no incentive to invent things, like steam engines, that could be easily reverse-engineered.

Enter the patent. When an inventor could share an idea, but still profit off of it, new possibilities arose in the way that people learned and created.

Thoughts: I’m still not sure that I have a good understanding of how steam engines work. I suspect that a better way to learn that information will be studying YouTube videos like this one:

I did learn a lot about the life and times of the men who invented steam engines and how one idea fed into others. This book praises capitalism, particularly the ability for a person to capitalize on their own idea. The argument for fueling creativity in a culture was compelling. But, I felt like there were missing bits that needed to be reckoned with. For this time period, any book making an economic argument about the UK or US can’t really ignore the institutions of slavery and colonialism. Exploiting people makes any system produce amazing results, but doesn’t make it praiseworthy or, necessarily, a useful argument for how to foster inventiveness in our shared future.

This book was all the more fun because I’ve seen some of the steam engines that he discusses — particularly a memorable day at Crofton Pumping Station.

Appeal: This is more readable than any book we’ve found so far about the invention of steam engines. More generally, this would be a big help to anyone exploring the Industrial Revolution.

Challenges: This is my first nonfiction book of 2018, so I’ll link it up to today’s Nonfiction Friday at Doing Dewey. I’m planning to read twelve nonfiction books this year. My second one was my book club selection last night — I’ll review it when I’ve had a chance to process our discussion.

Do you have a fascination with steam engines? How do you learn about them?

Signature of Joy Weese Moll


The Most Powerful Idea in the World #Steam #BriFri — 9 Comments

  1. I would definitely have a hard time understanding how steam engines work by reading a book. I’m terrible at visualizing machines and such from descriptions. However, it certainly was (is) a powerful idea, and it would be great to learn more about the people and events surrounding this invention. THank you for making the point about slavery and colonialism – we do still have an incredible blind spot there in our history.

  2. This book sounds interesting. I enjoy these by-ways of history. I learnt at school that the reason that Britain led the Industrial Revolution was political stability. As an island, it was less likely to be invaded than continental countries, and any factory you built was unlikely to be bombed by enemies, burnt down by mobs or confiscated by the government. It also allowed the development of things like patents and made financing easier. Not sure if this is still the accepted reason, as historical perspectives seem to change regularly!

  3. Hi Joy! Happy new year 2018!

    I suspect I need to work harder than other group hostesses because I run my year from February 1. Folks who are ready with sign-up pages in December seem to abound in walk-ins finding them by chance. So I am letting you know my quartet, three in their fifth year, are alive and well. The baby of the family is “Celtic Coast”, which fits perfectly with what you’re reading here! 🙂 I would love to have you and your followers. All four can be visited at this menu page. Sincerely, Carolyn.

  4. I think this would be a fun book to read. Not that I am very good at mechanical stuff, but I like to hear about how people come up with new ideas and make them work. I’m looking forward to hearing about your next nonfiction reads. And thanks for the opportunity to link up my review.

  5. Pingback: Elegy for Eddie #BookReview #BriFri – Joy's Book Blog

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