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The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention (Anglais) Relié – 1 juin 2010

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Chapter One


Concerning how a toy built in Alexandria failed to inspire, and how a glass tube made in italy succeeded; the spectacle of two german hemispheres attached to sixteen german horses; and the critical importance of nothing at all to get to crofton from Birmingham, you take the M5 south about sixty miles to Brockworth and then change to the A417, which meanders first east, then southwest, then southeast, for another forty-six miles, changing, for no apparent reason, into the A419, and then the A436. In Burbage, you turn left at the Wolfhall Road and follow it another mile, across the railroad tracks and over the canal. The reason for making this three-hour journey (not counting time for wrong turns) is visible for the last quarter-mile or so: two red brick buildings next to a sixty-foot-tall chimney.

The Crofton Pump Station in Wiltshire contains the oldest steam engine in the world still doing the job for which it was designed. Every weekend, its piston-operated beam pumps twelve tons of water a minute into six eight-foot-high locks along the hundred-mile-long Kennet and Avon Canal. The engine itself, number 42B-the figure "B. 42" is still visible on the engine beam-is so called because it was the second engine with a forty-two-inch cylinder produced by the Birmingham manufacturer Boulton & Watt. It was entered in the company's order book on January 11, 1810, and installed almost precisely two years later. Except for a brief time in the 1960s, it has run continuously ever since.

First encounters with steam power are usually unexpected, inadvertent, and explosive; the cap flying off a defective teakettle, for example. No surprise there; the expansive property of water when heated past a certain point was known for thousands of years before that point was ever measured, and to this day it's what drives the turbine that generates most of our electricity, including that used to power the light by which you are reading this book. The relationship between the steam power of a modern turbine and the kind used to pump the water out of the Kennet and Avon Canal is, however, anything but direct. By comparison, the mechanism of engine 42B is a thing of Rube Goldberg-like complexity, with levers, cylinders, and pistons yoked together by a dozen different linkages, connecting rods, gears, cranks, and cams, all of them moving in a terrifyingly complicated dance that is at once fascinating, and eerily quiet- enough to occupy the mechanically inclined visitor, literally, for hours. When the engine is "in steam," it somehow causes the twenty- six-foot-long cast iron beams to move, in the words of Charles Dickens, "monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in melancholy madness."

There is, however, something odd about the beams, or rather about the pistons to which they are attached. The pistons aren't just being driven up by the steam below them. The power stroke is also down: toward the steam chamber. Something is sucking the pistons downward. Or, more accurately, nothing is: a vacuum.

Using steam to create vacuum was not the sort of insight that came an instant after watching a teakettle lid go flying. It depended, instead, on a journey of discovery and diffusion that took more than sixteen centuries. By all accounts the trip began sometime in the first century ce, on the west side of the Nile Delta, in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, at the Mouseion, the great university at which first Euclid and then Archimedes studied, and where, sometime around 60 CE, another great mathematician lived and worked, one whose name is virtually always the first associated with the steam engine: Heron of Alexandria.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica entry for Heron-occasionally, Hero-is somewhat scant on birth and death dates; as is often the case with figures from an age less concerned with such trivia, it uses the abbreviation "fl." for the latin floruit, or "flourished." And flourish he did. Heron's text on geometry, written sometime in the first century but not rediscovered until the end of the nineteenth, is known as the Metrika, and includes both the formula for calculating the area of a triangle and a method for extracting square roots. He was even better known as the inventor of a hydraulic fountain, a puppet theater using automata, a wind-powered organ, and, most relevantly for engine 42B, the aeolipile, a reaction engine that consisted of a hollow sphere with two elbow-shaped tubes attached on opposite ends, mounted on an axle connected to a tube suspended over a cauldron of water. As the water boiled, steam rose through the pipe into the sphere and escaped through the tubes, causing the sphere to rotate.

Throughout most of human history, successful inventors, unless wealthy enough to retain their amateur status, have depended on patronage, which they secured either by entertaining their betters or glorifying them (sometimes both). Heron was firmly in the first camp, and by all accounts, the aeolipile was regarded as a wonder by the wealthier classes of Alexandria, which was then one of the richest and most sophisticated cities in the world. Despite the importance it is given in some scientific histories, though, its real impact was nil. No other steam engines were inspired by it, and its significance is therefore a reminder of how quickly inventions can vanish when they are produced for a society's toy department.

In fact, because the aeolipile depended only upon the expansive force of steam, it should probably be remembered as the first in a line of engineering dead ends. But if the inspirational value of Heron's steam turbine was less than generally realized, that of his writings was incomparably greater. He wrote at least seven complete books, including Metrika, collecting his innovations in geometry, and Automata, which described a number of self-regulating machines, including an ingenious mechanical door opener. Most significant of all was Pneumatika, less for its descriptions of the inventions of this remarkable man (in addition to the aeolipile, the book included "Temple Doors Opened by Fire on an Altar," "A Fountain Which Trickles by the Action of the Sun's Rays," and "A Trumpet, in the Hands of an Automaton, Sounded by Compressed Air," a catalog that reinforces the picture of Heron as antiquity's best toymaker) than for a single insight: that the phenomenon observed when sucking the air out of a chamber is nothing more than the pressure of the air around that chamber. It was a revelation that turned out to be utterly critical in the creation of the world's first steam engines, and therefore of the Industrial Revolution that those engines powered.

The idea wasn't, of course, completely original to Heron; the idea that air is a source of energy is immeasurably older than science, or even technology. Ctesibos, an inventor and engineer born in Alexandria three centuries before Heron, supposedly used compressed air to operate his "water organ" that used water as a piston to force air through different tubes, making music.

Just as the ancients realized that moving air exerts pressure, they also recognized that its absence did something similar. The realization that sucking air out of a closed chamber creates a vacuum seems fairly obvious to any child who has ever placed a finger on top of a straw-as indeed it was to Heron. In the preface to Pneumatika, he wrote, if a light vessel with a narrow mouth be taken and applied to the lips, and the air be sucked out and discharged, the vessel will be suspended from the lips, the vacuum drawing the flesh towards it that the exhausted space may he filled. It is manifest from this that there was a continuous vacuum in the vessel...thus producing what a modern scholar has called a "very satisfactory theory of elastic fluids."

Satisfactory to a twenty-first-century child, and a first-century mathematician, but not, unfortunately, for a whole lot of people in between. To them, the idea that space could exist absent any occupants, which seems self-evident, was evidently not, and the reason was the dead hand of the philosopher-scientist who tutored Alexandria's founder. Aristotle argued against the existence of a vacuum with unerring, though curiously inelegant, logic. His primary argument ran something like this:

1. If empty space can be measured, then it must have dimension.

2. If it has dimension, then it must be a body (this is something of a tautology: by Aristotelian definition, bodies are things that have dimension).

3. Therefore, anything moving into such a previously empty space would be occupying the same space simultaneously, and two bodies cannot do so.

More persuasive was the argument that a void is "unnecessary," that since the fundamental character of an object consists of those measurable dimensions, then a void with the same dimensions as the cup, or horse, or ship occupying it is no different from the object. One, therefore, is redundant, and since the object cannot be superfluous, the void must be.

It takes millennia to recover from that sort of unassailable logic, temptingly similar to that used in Monty Python and the Holy Grail to demonstrate that if a woman weighs as much as a duck, she is a witch. Aristotle's blind spot regarding the existence of a void would be inherited by a hundred generations of his adherents. Those who read the work of Heron did so through an Aristotelian scrim on which was printed, in metaphorical letters twenty feet high: NATURE ABHORS A VACUUM.

Given that, it is something of a small miracle that Pneumatika, and its description of vacuum, survived at all. But survive it did, like so many of the great works of antiquity, in an Arabic translation, until around the thirteenth century, when it first appeared in Latin. And it was another three hundred years until a really influential translation arrived, an Italian edition translated by Giovanni Batista Aleotti d'Argenta and published in 1589. Aleotti's work, and subsequent translations of his translation into German, English, and French (plus five mo...

Présentation de l'éditeur

If all measures of human advancement in the last hundred centuries were plotted on a graph, they would show an almost perfectly flat line—until the eighteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution would cause the line to shoot straight up, beginning an almost uninterrupted march of progress.
In The Most Powerful Idea in the World, William Rosen tells the story of the men responsible for the Industrial Revolution and the machine that drove it—the steam engine. In the process he tackles the question that has obsessed historians ever since: What made eighteenth-century Britain such fertile soil for inventors? Rosen’s answer focuses on a simple notion that had become enshrined in British law the century before: that people had the right to own and profit from their ideas.
The result was a period of frantic innovation revolving particularly around the promise of steam power. Rosen traces the steam engine’s history from its early days as a clumsy but sturdy machine, to its coming-of-age driving the wheels of mills and factories, to its maturity as a transporter for people and freight by rail and by sea. Along the way we enter the minds of such inventors as Thomas Newcomen and James Watt, scientists including Robert Boyle and Joseph Black, and philosophers John Locke and Adam Smith—all of whose insights, tenacity, and ideas transformed first a nation and then the world.
William Rosen is a masterly storyteller with a keen eye for the “aha!” moments of invention and a gift for clear and entertaining explanations of science. The Most Powerful Idea in the World will appeal to readers fascinated with history, science, and the hows and whys of innovation itself.

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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) 77 commentaires
22 internautes sur 23 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
One of history's great hinge moments 28 juillet 2010
Par Watt - Publié sur
Format: Relié
This book is about a major turning point in human history, and why it happened. By most measures of human advancement, the world pretty much stayed the same between the second and eighteenth centuries, and then something happened. Rosen tackles a question that has obsessed historians ever since--why it happened in England in the 18th c. The book is worth reading because Rosen is a good writer, both in terms of storytelling and explaining science, technology, and law, and because the book will help you to understand how societies can encourage innovation and therefore growth. If I had a complaint, it's that the author is so into his story that he occasionally followed tributaries that I didn't find interesting. But I found it pretty easy to skip over those parts without losing the thread.
94 internautes sur 112 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Some Positive Features - Some Shortcomings 14 juin 2010
Par G. Poirier - Publié sur
Format: Relié
The amount of information contained in this book is truly astounding. Just about every aspect of inventing that one can imagine is touched upon here, at least to some degree. These include but are not limited to: legal issues, social and political matters, psychology, even religion and philosophy. The reader is also introduced to a myriad of people who have contributed, in some way or other, to the Industrial Revolution. The most significant invention that is followed throughout is the steam engine. But many other inventions are also discussed such as: devices to address certain mining problems, making various types of iron, collecting and processing cotton and silk, various devices to improve upon prior inventions, etc. The amount of information contained in this book is truly encyclopaedic; the author's efforts in putting it all together must have been astronomical.

Unfortunately, despite all of these positive features, the book was not at all what I expected. I assumed that a book recounting the history of the steam engine would be rich in technical detail - either with plenty of illustrative sketches to complement the text or written in prose so rich in detail that sketches would be unnecessary; unfortunately I misjudged. The technical details that are given in the text are, in too many cases, much too brief to allow a technical reader to get a good appreciation of how a given device worked or what the technical issues were. And the few sketches that are included (nine in the entire book) are reproductions from centuries ago and do not add much to help the reader's technical comprehension. In addition, I found that the great many individuals that are introduced throughout, along with their contributions, eventually become hard to keep track of. Related to this is that the information presented is often so tightly packed as to be rather overwhelming. Finally, the timeline is not linear; throughout, the reader is repetitively led forward and backward in time, thus making following the story line rather tricky.

The writing style is quite friendly, lively and even peppered with welcome bits of humour. However, there are also many rather long-winded sentences that make those parts of the text a bit awkward to read. The book may be of most interest to those who are not so much looking for technical details but who rather enjoy reading some fascinating historical snippets related to inventing and the Industrial Revolution.
36 internautes sur 42 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Read the reviews carefully 29 juillet 2010
Par C. Hawkins - Publié sur
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
I got pulled into this by a friend. We had liked Rosen's earlier book: Justinian's Flea Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe. His new book brings the same, easy to read style to another history subject. Just reading the first chapter got me right away. You can read the other reviews here...

But what really bothers me is that several people have voted only one stars on this book. They are not voting on the quality of the read, but on the pricing of the book by the publisher for the electronic version. Well, I bought the electronic version, and I saved money verses the hardcover. Yes, it is higher than many e-books, but that is not the fault of the author. Come on, rate the book on its merit.
8 internautes sur 8 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
Well Written and Researched 6 août 2010
Par Richard Jackson - Publié sur
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
This study of the industrial revolution is not just a listing of the inventions that led to the perfection of the steam engine. It goes to the background of legal ideas and structure of society in the 17th century which allowed invention to flourish in Britain (and later in New England). As an example, the author discusses the origin of patent law in England in the mid 1600s -- there was a key legal decision based on the new notion that an idea could be property and therefore given protection under the law.

The book is nicely written with both erudition and a gentle humor.
6 internautes sur 6 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
A Story of Discovery and Progress 18 septembre 2010
Par Crosslands - Publié sur
Format: Relié
Mr. Rosen has written a very interesting and well written book on the invention and improvement of the steam engine. Basically Mr. Rosen covers the period form the seventeenth century to the first part of the eighteenth century. Mr. Rosen ends his discussion with the development of the Rocket steam locomotive by George and Robert Stephenson and Richard Trevithick.

Mr. Rosen demonstrates that the social and legal climate in England in this period favored new inventions. The legal system, in part due to the efforts of jurist Edward Coke, protected intellectual property by patent rights. Thus inventors were much less likely to have their ideas and products stolen by other men who had done nothing to develop the invention. Thus inventors could prosper materially as well as socially from their efforts. Moreover inventing new techniques and new products was socially acceptable.

The result was that inventions occurred more and more often over the time interval. And new inventions in one product field added to the demand for and encouraged inventions in other fields. For example John Wilkinson's method of boring iron tubes greatly enhanced the production of steam engine equipment. Numerous other inventions fed the development of steam power.

Mr. Rosen goes into great and interesting detail about the inventors and inventions. For example, Mr. Rosen provides much detail on the life of James Watt, his birth near Glasgow Scotland, his work as a clockmaker and instrument maker in London, his study of the Newcomen steam engine, his new steam engine with a separate condenser and use of vacuum space, and his fertile partnership with Matthew Boulton. Mr. Rosen provides such details of many other inventors, including an American, Oliver Evans, who invented the steam furnace internal to the water boiler. This invention led to the railroad steam engine.

Mr. Rosen also discusses the legal, economic, and other causes for periods of multiple new inventions and scientific and technological progress.

In some cases some technical background is helpful in understanding Mr. Rosen's descriptions of the inventions. Moreover one could disagree with the steam engine being the most important discovery. A good case could be made for the Gutenberg printing press as the real most important discovery from which other inventions would follow.

Yet this book is a superb history of a period of important invention and the development of industrial civilization. The book is of particular importance to those interested in the development of railroads. The book is a must read.
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