Books for the News, History and Philosophy of Science

Bill Gates on The Most Powerful Idea in the World


William Rosen’s The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention considers how scientific and intellectual breakthroughs—specifically, the burgeoning field of mechanical engineering and its resultant affect on patent law—ushered in the development of the steam engine, and thus, the Industrial Revolution. In a February 2013 post for his GatesNotes blog, tech impresario and philanthropist–entrepreneur Bill Gates praised the book as, “an entertaining narrative weaving together the clever characters, incremental innovations, and historical context behind the engines that give birth to our modern world.”

In his review, Gates contextualized how the interrelationship between intellectual property and public disclosure became integral to the culture of late nineteenth-century democratic invention:

The book’s premise is that the Anglophone world—England, Scotland, Wales, and America—was the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution because it “democratized the nature of invention.” Rosen makes a compelling argument that the steam engine is the quintessential example of that democratization at work.

I won’t spoil it by telling all the reasons why, but suffice it to say one of the most important was the advent of patent protection. Patents were a holdover of monopolies granted by kings over businesses such as sugar and tobacco, later evolving into the policy that people should be able to control their own inventions. That, of course, encouraged invention.

Rosen, of course, later accounts for how steam power, which fueled factories, ships, and railroads, changed the course of human history. And Gates, who recently named The Most Powerful Idea in the World as one of his best reads of 2013, continues to advocate for instances of this type of “human ingenuity.”

With that in mind, we’ll be offering the book for just $9 (usually $17) through the end of the year, if you order from the University of Chicago Press website (using the code AD9978).

In the meantime, to read more about The Most Powerful Idea in the World, click here.