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This story of steam, industry and invention is a must read for inventors, national politicians, historians and anyone else interested in why the modern world functions as it does. It illustrates the problems of early inventors keeping their trade secrets secret so they could make a living. Opposed to that idea is the concept of maximizing the public wellbeing, which is usually defined as the national wellbeing of a large country. For the politicians running a country the little recognized problem is how to motivate their people to create new and useful things for their nation’s public consumption. At first glance it seems the politicians’ goals are in conflict with those of the inventors. The problem for the creators of new ideas is not only how to make things better but how to make a living, which requires considerable effort. Unfortunately, any potential payoff after years of intense work on a new invention can’t be made profitable exclusively to the inventors themselves in most countries at most times in history.

These are not idle ivory tower speculations about the truth of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Even with a good patent system in place, the issue of where to get research and development money remains fraught with difficulty. For example, it was reported in Discover magazine this week, (issue THE BRAIN Fall 2010 p. 42) that lithium, a simple element, has been known since the 1940s as being effective for treating bipolar mental problems. However, since it can’t be easily made into a commercially viable drug, there has been very little research on how to exploit its properties. It might cost hundreds of millions of dollars for someone to work out some improvements to the usage of lithium, but as soon as the improvement is known anyone could use it without repaying the people who developed the improvement. Therefore, the people who might be capable of doing the difficult work spend their time and creativity on things from which they can make a living, even though these things are not of as much value to the public.

These types of issues are developed in depth in the new book by William Rosen, The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. He narrows his historical problems to those issues and people surrounding the creation of the steam engine and the patent system. He gives a surprisingly understandable explanation of why the idea of ownership of mere ideas was and still is so difficult for people to understand. After all, ideas are nothing at all, not even as comprehensible as animal clouds in the sky, and treating them with the same respect humans naturally hold for land and for the physical person and his hand-held possessions is hard for people to understand. It still is for most people and therefore they are comfortable stealing computer programs even though they realize it took the creators many hours of highly skilled effort to create them. It was the philosopher John Locke who first defined what is and is not a person’s property:

Rosen, p. 64 [M]an has no right to own the work of God—to own land—but that rightful property is derived from the labor of man mixed with that of God. That is, when man combines his labor with the goods of the earth, he has created a natural right to the product.

p. 65 By equating labor with a property right, Locke found a right to property anywhere labor is added. The defining characteristic became the labor, not the thing. And labor, in Locke’s formulation, was as much of mind as of muscle.  “Nature furnishes us only with the material, for the most part rough, and unfitted to our use; it requires labor, art, and thought, to suit them to our occasions.”

p. 66 …in 1776, Adam Smith was virtually channeling Locke’s Second Treatise, writing in The Wealth of Nations, “The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable.”

Rosen’s book has many clearly stated observations which I have thought for a long time but he puts into the form of fine bon mots, for example, “Scientific understanding didn’t progress by looking for truth: it did so by looking for mistakes.” It’s not the things that work according to our current understanding but the things in conflict with it that give rise to a new understanding or at least a search for a better one.

Many things were essential to the physical creation of the Industrial Revolution. Cheap and plentiful iron from which to make things, the right to own and exploit personal ideas for a while, and cheap precision manufacture of identical items. This last point is developed following p.192 and is based on a seemingly simple invention, that of having a second threaded screw linked to the primary spinning shaft of a wood lathe. This addition turns a wood lathe into what is usually called a metal lathe. It is possible to use this linkage between the two rotating shafts to create new screws of finer threads than the first one and with a little cleverness to replace the first secondary screw with this newly created one which is incrementally more accurate. When these improved screws are incorporated into large solid lathes, extreme precision can be attained, and with that precision interchangeable parts can be manufactured in quantity. Before that breakthrough everything had to be hand fitted to everything it was intended to work with and every item was a one-off thing like a brand new experiment. The first really accurate micrometer, made by Watt and improved by Maudslay, was used to make these first screws on the lathes super accurate. And his employee Whitworth made even more accurate measuring blocks. It is the precision that these men created that helped launch the industrial world we so unconsciously enjoy the benefits of.

Another key concept in the creation of our modern world is the scalability of an idea. That is, if you can figure a way of making one specific thing a little better and that improvement can be applied to a multitude of similar items throughout the world, it improves the lives of everyone using that new idea. It is reasonable that the one who benefits from this new improvement should repay the creator some small percentage of the satisfaction the improvement supplied.

Over the old US patent office, now the Herbert Hoover Building, are inscribed the words of Abraham Lincoln:




I recommend this book to all members of modern humanity because it will make your life easier and more comprehensible.