Book Review – “The most powerful idea in the world: A story of steam, industry and invention” By William Rosen (University of Chicago Press 2010)


In the early 1980s (adopts Maurice Chevalier accent – “Ah yes, I remember eet well”), a senior CSIRO official (who also happened to be a patent attorney) said in the presence of Ministers that the patent system was detrimental to Australia’s needs. This triggered the Industrial Property Advisory Committee, which was tasked with reporting on IP in Australia. There was particularly fierce criticism from Committee member Professor Don Lamberton, who ideally wanted the system abolished completely, or, failing that, something like a ten-year term and extremely restrictive compulsory licensing provisions, very like the then situation in the Cartagena Agreement countries. He didn’t get his way, and the subsequent changes would no doubt have him turning in his grave.

This all left me with an abiding interest in whether patents really do promote innovation. Which brings me to this book. Ostensibly about the development of the steam engine, which was to power the Industrial Revolution and push some soggy islands off the coast of Europe into a position of world economic dominance, it is much, much more than that. Indeed, it is a fascinating cornucopia of a book, delving into all sorts of odd technological and legal corners, and introducing a large cast of unusual and frequently eccentric characters.

One question it seeks to answer is, why did it happen in England (and its Transatlantic offshoot) rather than just as technologically advanced China or one of the Continental European powers? The answer is a strange and wonderful mixture.

First of all, there was necessity, that well-known mother of invention; as England cut down its forests for fuel for industry, there was a need for an alternative fuel, which meant that coal mines kept getting deeper and more prone to water ingress and therefore needed efficient pumps. Enter the first crude steam engines, improved by James Watt (who kept competitors at bay with patents, even going to the extent of partner Matthew Boulton getting a special Act of Parliament to extend one of them). England had inadvertently generated a whole batch of skilled and inventive Nonconformists (Scottish Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, Muggletonians (honestly!)) because only members of the Established Church could go to university.

This went hand in hand with advances in science, especially researches into the nature of heat, although working steam engines were a reality before the nature of heat was really understood (first there was phlogistin, then there was caloric…). And then there was the law – in the wake of Darcy v. Allein (“the playing card case”), Lord Justice Edward Coke, a man with an interest in protecting the work of artisans, introduced in 1623 “An Act concerning Monopolies and Dispensations with penall Lawes and the Forfeyture thereof”, with whose Section 6 you are all intimately familiar.

Put it together and what have you got? Bippity-boppity-boo. The whole scene became a mishmash of some major and many incremental minor inventions, all of them advancing the cause, more and more of them protected by patent, in spite of the incredible unwieldiness and expense of the UK procedure (the US avoided both these traps, which encouraged ordinary folk to use the system). Some came from completely unrelated fields, such as locksmithing and cannon boring. All advancing via the mechanisation of cotton production towards the most revolutionary invention of all, the ability to make a steam-driven contrivance mobile and capable of pulling loads, culminating in the triumph of Stephenson’s “Rocket”, which stands to this day in the South Kensington Science Museum. And the world was fundamentally changed forever.

And patents? The author leaves the final word of the subject to the only US President ever to hold a patent, Abraham Lincoln.

“Man is not the only animal who labours, but he is the only one who improves his workmanship by Discoveries and Inventions…in the days before Edward Coke’s original Statute on Monopolies, any man could instantly use what another had invented*; so that the inventor had no special advantage of his own invention…The patent system changed this; secured to the inventor for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery of useful things”.


*The Venetian Patent Statute of 1474 clearly never found its way to rural Illinois.


< Back