This is the first of a two-part interview of William Rosen who is an historian and writer as well as the author of the award-winning history Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe and the recently published The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. Previously, he was an editor and publisher at Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and the Free Press for nearly twenty-five years. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
Morris: Why do you think that steam power is “the most powerful idea in the world”?
Rosen: The word “powerful” has a bit of a double meaning. Steam wasn’t just the first technology for doing work that didn’t depend on either muscle, wind, or water – which, before the 18th century, were the only choices on offer for all of human history – but it was possible only because of an even more powerful (or, at least, consequential) idea: the recognition that ideas, in the form of legally protected patents, were themselves a kind of property
Morris: As you explain in the book, steam power can be traced back to the first century A.D. Why did it take so long (more than 1700 years) to develop engines to use that source of power?
Rosen: Steam engines, in the form of simple turbines used to operate toys and entertainments, date back to at least the 1st century AD. But transforming these amusements into something truly useful demanded a whole series of cultural, legal, and scientific developments, of which the most significant – OK: the most powerful – was the idea that inventors could benefit from the use of their inventions by others.
Morris: You cite T.S. Ashton’s short but indispensable history of the Industrial Revolution: “About 1760, a wave of gadgets swept over England.” You characterize steam power as the “hub” of all this activity. Please explain.
Rosen: The steam engine was reflexive, in a way that, for example, waterwheels were not. The first steam engines ran on coal – they still do – but they were originally built to pump the water out of the coal mines that provided their own fuel. By increasing the availability of coal, coal-powered engines became useful for other activities; coal, in the form of coke, was central to the growth of Britain’s iron foundries, which were built to supply the boilers for the steam engines that operated forges and blast furnaces. The first working steam locomotives were built to carry cotton, which traveled to the British Isles on steamships, and was spun into cloth by steam-powered mills.
Morris: Was there only one Industrial Revolution? Please explain.
Rosen: Many, probably most, histories, tend to distinguish between the “first” Industrial Revolution, which is conventionally dated from 1760 to 1820, and a second, beginning in the last quarter of the 19th century. However, the distinction is not only artificial (the 1760-1820 dates, for example, derive from an 1878 lecture in which the term first appeared…but since the ostensible subject of that lecture was the reign of George III, the dates of his time on the throne got conflated with the “industrial revolution”) but the opposite of enlightening. If, as I believe, the revolutionary character of the Industrial Revolution is that it marks the first sustained era of technological improvement in human history, then we’re still living in it today.
Morris: Was the Industrial Revolution in fact a revolution or a period of industrial evolution?
Rosen: The terms aren’t really mutually exclusive. I’m temperamentally cautious about applying the principles of Darwinian evolution by natural selection to anything but the biological world, but if you buy the notion, popularized by Niles Eldredge and the late Stephen Jay Gould, that evolution is really long periods of relative stasis interrupted by moments of dramatic change – “punctuated equilibrium” as it is known – then the Industrial Revolution is, by any measure, a revolutionary moment in a very long evolutionary history.
Morris: However the rapid growth and expansion of industrialization in the 19th century is characterized`, why did English-speaking people play such a major role?
Rosen: There are literally hundreds of different explanations for the preeminence of the “Anglosphere” (essentially Britain and America) in the history of industrialization, from the geographic (easy access to coal; navigable rivers) to the cultural (the greater “industriousness” of northern European Protestantism as opposed to southern European Catholicism, or Asian Confucianism) to the demographic (because of primogeniture, the propensity of the younger sons of England’s propertied classes to percolate downward to the artisan world, bringing good bourgeois values with them). None of them seems as persuasive as the development in Britain of a legal system that recognized the property rights of inventors in their inventions, thus offering them a powerful and enduring incentive not merely to create their own inventions, but to improve upon and compete with the inventions of others.
Morris: Although your book has been described as a “biography of a single invention,” my own opinion is that – invoking a metaphor or two — you explore a “galaxy” of inventions rather than only one “star.” Is that a fair assessment?
Rosen: You’ve caught me. The first working steam engines, it turns out, weren’t single inventions at all. They were, instead, as you point out, entire galaxies of inventions small and large: not just the headline creations like James Watt’s separate condenser, but linkages, valves, governors, boilers, cams, gears, and dozens more. Moreover, the engines were used to drive the machinery of the world’s first factories — mills for turning grain into flour, and cotton into yarn (and to weave that yarn into cloth) – which inspired still more inventions. They demanded of the iron industry inventions like puddling furnaces, iron lathes, and boring machines. And all of these depended on a family of other inventions: an entire world of instruments for precision measurement.
Morris: Here’s a follow-up question. What are “spillovers” and what is their relevance to the development of machines to produce steam power?
Rosen: The term is from Alfred Marshall, the economist who coined the term in the 1890s. Marshall hypothesized that his century’s unprecedented economic growth was due to a whole truckload of innovations whose benefits “spilled over” into the national economy soon after they had enriched the “personal” economy of their creators. This is one of the ways of understanding the bargain inherent in a patent system: An inventor can benefit from a valuable and novel idea (like a new kind of gear) for a given amount of time – the original British and American patents lasted fourteen years – after which it became public property. In fact, the benefits of the first steam engine innovations started spilling over long before fourteen years passed, since inventors were still able to examine and attempt to outdo them even during the patent term.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
You are also invited to check out several videos of William Rosen by clicking here.
Good ideas come from everywhere – from “elsewhere” – over the long haul, in “slow hunch” ways. So says Steven Johnson, in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. But here is one place they come from, and here is our quote for the day:
Reading remains an unsurpassed vehicle for the transmission of interesting new ideas and perspectives.
(I am presenting my synopsis of this terrific book this Friday, December 3, at the First Friday Book Synopsis, in Dallas. Register here).