The most powerful idea in the world: a story of
steam, industry and invention.
London: Jonathan Cape, 2010.
This book was seen in the Holt Bookshop during one of the shop's enthralling "meet the author" sessions. Sadly, for the owner of the shop it was not purchased, but instead was sought through the Public Library, which remarkably had acquired two copies of it in spite of its somewhat rarified approach. At first it was wondererd whether the book had even justified the 55p reservation charge, but a casual glance at a page mentioning Michael Polanyi and his study of inventiveness made the old dullard press on. The reason for which justifies a digression:. interest in innovation within the rubber industry (and the whole concept of innovation) had led to a reference to a paper by Cockbain and Polanyi. He could scarcely believe that someone with whom he walked up the road (Gordon Cockbain) and who commented upon the spring flowers had written a paper with the philosopher of science. Gordon duly verified the connection and to the amazement of Kevin he subsequently occupied the same post-retirement position (although with considerably less distinction).
Returning to Rosen, the following paragraph gives some indication of the book's importance.
Less predictably, Rossman's results demonstrated that the motivation to invent is not typically limited to one invention or industry. Though the most famous inventors are associated in the popular imagination with a single invention Watt and the separate condenser, Stephenson and Rocket Watt was just as proud of the portable copying machine he invented in 1780 as he was of his steam engine; Stephenson was, in some circles, just as famous for the safety lamp he invented to prevent explosions in coal mines as for his locomotive. Inventors, in Rossman's words, are "recidivists."
If for no other reason the book is significant in placing the Stephensons firmly amongst the truly greats. Sadly, there are those who would still argue that George was little more than an upstart collier and would point to his carefully nurtured son's failures rather than to his achievements. Furthermore, the book begins by looking at the Rocket, the remains of which are housed in the Science Musuem. It then explores backwards through the threads of inventive endeavour which led to this technological milestone and forward to contemporary methods of assessing creativity.
On pages 302-3 Rosen writes "It is almost indecently tempting to place the Liverpool & Manchester Railway at the climax of the entire history of British industrialization".