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Aug 17, 2010


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Amazing coincidence! I just got "Most Powerful Idea" a few weeks ago - and am strolling through it.

At about the same time, I found "The Golden Age of Steam" (John Pudney). (It suffers greatly from lack of an index.)

(England generated the most amazing collection of engineers and scientists: Isembard Kingdom Brunel, Wheatstone, Watt, Babbage ... It's as if a virus came floating down from outer space onto England, generating generations of geniuses. There hasn't been anything like it since Budapest in the early 40s: mathematicians (Erdos, von Neumann), artists & composers (most of whom left for Hollywood), filmmakers, ...

I can't find the quote in either book, but the thesis is that it was the idea that an inventor would have ownership - reap the profits - of his inventions.

At the beginning of "Idea" he talks about what needed to come together to bring about the steam engine (the first use of steam as motive power was the Old Greek guy Heron, sometime around 50 A.D.):

Prologue, p.xxi
... coal, iron, cotton ... [provided the impetus, the need to get things from here to there before the horses gave out]
"Thousands of innovations were necessary to create stem power..."
(As an aside, that part of the "urban legend" about the spacing of railroad rails is true: it comes from the roads leading out of the coal mine.)

"The best explanation for the preeminence of English speakers in lifting humanity out of its [10,000]-year -long Malthusian trap is that the Anglophone world democratized the nature of invention."

I think the idea is that before the change to inventor's ownership, the invention went to the patron - the king, whoever was funding the inventor. And so, progress was slow.

The other idea is that Malthus was a bit short-sighted - certainly a universal human failing. Prediction, they say, is always a risky business, especially about the future.

Something just popped out as I was looking for a quote: bottom of p.321:
"... those hours, 10,000 at a time ..."

That's the generally-accepted time it takes to become a master at something: concert pianist, Zen master, whatever.

(The next page talks about the first (and last) President to hold a U.S. Patent: Abraham Lincoln.)

PS: The Bernstein link is broken (the interesting part of the URL is missing). This may be what you meant:

The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created

But that Bernstein seems to write more about economics than technology. Let me know if that's it.

Michael W. Kruse

I fixed the link and you do indeed have the right book.

Bernstein identifies four key variables that lead to Western prosperity:

Property Rights (Not just intellectual)
Scientific Rationalism
Capital Markets
Transport and Communication

While economics is a piece it is a much broader and more holistic approach.

Thanks for the heads-up on the Pudney book. I'll have to give it a look.


Of those four, four emerged in Western Europe. England for property rights, France and Holland (and ???) for scientific rationalism, and I think England again for the other two.

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