LEADVILLE, COLORADO, AT AN elevation of 10,152 feet, is the highest city in the United States, though the term “city” is generous; fewer than three thousand people live there, most of them directly or indirectly supported by tourism. Leadville, like many places in the American West, trades on its history, and it has more to trade on than most. Leadville was where Doc Holliday escaped after the legendary gunfight at Tombstone’s O.K. Corral, and the hometown to which the “unsinkable” Molly Brown returned after surviving the sinking of the Titanic. But most of the local color comes from local mines, from which millions of dollars in gold, and especially silver, were extracted in the last decades of the nineteenth century—enough, in fact, that Leadville is home to the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum.

It is also where, on October 11, 1962, the last regularly scheduled steam locomotive in the United States departed on its fourteen-mile trip to Climax, Colorado. The engine—#641 on the books of the Colorado & Southern Railway—used a multitube boiler fed by a blastpipe, just like Rocket. Just like Rocket, it ran on standard-gauge track, four feet eight and a half inches wide, just big enough to carry coal down the old wagonway at Killingworth Colliery.

And just like Rocket, engine #641, built in 1906 by Philadelphia’s Baldwin Locomotive Works, is practically an encyclopedia of engineering innovations, hundreds of them invented after the Rainhill Trials. In the 1840s, locomotives worldwide adopted a different linkage arrangement—the so-called “valve gear,” also a George Stephenson patent—but still connected pistons to wheels using slip eccentrics. By the time engine #641 was being designed, even Stephenson’s valve gear was supplanted by a different and superior version invented by the Belgian engineer Egide Walschaerts. Rocket’s angled pistons were replaced by horizontal ones. Fireboxes moved forward and back, wheel arrangements changed. Superior pressure gauges replaced the nine-foot-tall mercury tube used at the Rainhill Trials; air brakes were introduced, and then were replaced by ones using vacuum—necessary for stopping twentieth-century locomotives that could be one hundred and twenty feet long and weigh five hundred tons even without freight. By 1900, railroad track in Great Britain covered more than 48,000 miles; in Europe, more than 65,000. The United States, with its enormously greater territory, had laid 193,000 miles of track on its way to a 1930 peak of 230,000.

As on land, so at sea. From the end of the 1860s through the 1920s, oceangoing ships turned their screws using engines with three or more cycles of expansion that were just a logical extension of the original compound engine, each cylinder using exhausted steam at lower temperature (and therefore pressure) in a greater volume of space, usually by increasing cylinder diameter. Since steam engines need fresh water, using the final stage of condensation for the boilers made possible the great steamships of the early twentieth century. Inventions created to move freight uncovered a new and highly profitable business in transporting large masses of people.

Innovation in stationary steam engines was, if anything, even more dramatic. On March 10, 1849, the American George Henry Corliss received a U.S. patent for “certain new and useful improvements in Steam-Engines,” and he was being modest. The Corliss engine incorporated a rotary valve (and a version of Watt’s centrifugal governor) to offer variable control to the steam and exhaust ports in the cylinders, which resulted in a massive increase in efficiency and some extraordinarily massive engines: The Corliss Centennial Engine, forty-five feet tall, with a flywheel diameter of thirty feet, produced more than 1,400 horsepower and operated virtually every moving part at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876.

It wasn’t until twenty years after Rainhill that science finally caught up with steam engineering. In 1851, a Scottish physicist (and onetime railway engineer on the Edinburgh & Dalkeith Railway, where his father was superintendent) named William John McQuorn Rankine published a paper demonstrating that the theoretical efficiency of steam engines—of any heat engines—could be precisely measured by establishing the upper and lower working temperatures of the system. This tempted John Ericsson1 (Novelty’s designer, who should have known better) to build what would have been a perpetual motion machine: an attempt to use the heat lost in the exhaust over and over again in a huge machine with four cylinders, each fourteen feet in diameter. Ericsson was not the first, but very nearly the last, inventor to fail to understand that heat, once converted into work, is no longer available as heat. Though Ericsson’s engine could save fuel (it was also known, appropriately enough, as an economizer), it could not use the same energy twice.*

More practically, two New Yorkers, John Allen and Charles Porter, revolutionized the ability of steam engines to deliver rotary power, adapting Watt’s governor to spin at very high speeds, which an 1858 article in Scientific American declared “if not absolutely perfect in its action,2 is nearly so, as to leave in our opinion nothing further to be desired.” This turned out to be critical, since by the 1880s the ability of reciprocating steam engines to drive a rotary gear at high speed had acquired a new purpose: the production of electricity.

The first electric generators—coils of wire, usually copper, spinning between the poles of a magnet—required startlingly high speeds of rotation; an 1887 machine ran at more than 1,600 revolutions per minute. All that spinning produced a lot of power, and demanded a lot. The biggest reciprocating steam engines ever built were ordered in 1899 for the electrical systems of New York City’s subway system. The ten-thousand-horsepower monster3 weighed in at more than seven hundred tons, with a series of thirty-foot-high cylinders driving an alternator that, all by itself, weighed 445½ tons. Even these massive engines were soon replaced by steam turbines, whose thermal efficiency is at least twice that of the best reciprocating engine—turbines convert up to 80 percent of heat energy into work, as opposed to less than 30 percent in a Cornish engine.

Steam turbines produce more than three-quarters of the world’s electricity, but they don’t drive the successors to Rocket and engine #641. Diesel-electric trains, like automobiles and propeller-driven aircraft, use internal combustion—steam engines, because their furnaces boil water in a chamber outside the cylinder, are external combustion machines—for the same reason that high pressure was needed to put steam on the move in the first place: a superior power-to-weight ratio. The conversion from steam to diesel-electric railroading, in which diesel engines drive electric traction motors, began in the early twentieth century and was completed in most of North America, Europe, and the United Kingdom by the 1960s. The significance of this is less than meets the eye. Steam locomotives may be harder to find outside museums (though not impossible; they remain popular in Asia and Africa, and even on some narrow-gauge lines in western Europe), but steam power is very much a going concern. Though it is now produced mostly by turbines instead of pistons, and delivered not by connecting rods but by copper wires, the world still burns a lot of coal to turn water into steam.

There is no doubt that the thermodynamic gradient between liquid water and steam changed the world, or that its discovery marks one of the most important turning points in history. It is not, however, the “most powerful idea” of this book’s title. To find the really big turning point in history that we associate with steam, and industrialization, we have to look elsewhere.

The classical Greeks, in their dramas, called the turning point the κρισις (which has retained its original pronunciation and definition—“crisis”—for three millennia). The word, derived from a root meaning “I decide,” refers to a moment after which the protagonist’s fate is changed forever. It seems pretty clear that we know when one of those before-and-after moments occurred. And we know where: three centuries back, in Britain and Britain’s colonies.

To many, the before-and-after snapshots do not make a happy comparison; contemporary opinion has become decidedly mixed about humanity’s leap into the age of fossil-fueled machinery.

And not just contemporary opinion; the early romantic—in an English literature class, it would be capitalized—appeal of the new science didn’t survive the first decades of the nineteenth century. Wordsworth, Thackeray, Carlyle, and later Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, and William Morris were uniformly appalled* by the impact of machines on (take your pick) the rural countryside, the traditional family, the joy of craftsmanship, or any combination thereof.

Their prescience did not, however, extend to the impact of carbon on the planet’s atmosphere.

It’s a cheap shot to call the movement to reverse human-caused global warming a descendant of Carlyle’s sneers about what he called a “Mechanical Age.” And it wouldn’t much matter if it were. If in the beginning the known costs of industrialization had included irreversible climate change in the form of melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and global disaster, Matthew Boulton himself might have had second thoughts about building machines “for all the world.” But probably not; John Ruskin might have lived just as well in a preindustrial world, but pretty much everyone else has done a whole lot better. From 1700 to 2000, the world’s population has increased twelvefold—but its production of goods and services a hundredfold.

This is why, against all odds, the first decades of industrialization actually have something useful to say about their long-term impact on the world’s climate—though it isn’t what either side in the global warming debate would probably endorse. It certainly doesn’t give much comfort to anyone who thinks humanity can be persuaded to spend any more for power than it has to; America and Europe might have finally so enriched themselves that they can afford to convert to wind, water, and solar power, but neither China nor India is likely to choose either over coal costing one-tenth as much. If the history of steam power teaches anything, it is that the lower-cost fuel option always wins. Right now, that option is about a trillion tons of easily mined, dirty, carbon-rich coal.

What this means, given the very real dangers of climate change, is that any comprehensive solution is going to have to do one of two things: figure out how to return all that carbon to where it was before humans learned how to exhaust it into the atmosphere—the technical term for putting carbon back is sequestration—or come up with a non-carbon-producing energy system that costs less than coal. Both options put the highest possible premium on invention. Phrased another way: There may be no way to put the genie of sustained invention back in the bottle, but we can put the genie to work.

By now, readers will have made up their minds about whether inventions and inventors deserve to hold center stage in the three-hundred-year dramatic crisis triggered by the genie’s appearance. The previous three hundred or so pages have been largely an attempt to demonstrate how the inventions created the crisis, how the inventors created the inventions, and even how the birth of an idea about property “created” enough inventors to get the whole drama moving. The next few will try to examine what kept it moving, and moving in the same direction.

IF THERE IS ONE consistent theme in the story of innovation, it is its reflexive character. Without deep coal mines, there would not only have been no need for steam-powered pumps to drain them, there would have been no fuel for the pumps. The cast iron used to manufacture boilers, cylinders, pistons, and gears had impurities hammered from its “blooms” by steam-driven hammers. The primary cargo for the first coal-driven locomotives was coal itself; a close second was the iron ore that was smelted and wrought into six-foot rail segments. These are all examples of the capacity of technological advances to spill over into the economy at large, and so multiply their initial effects; Wilkinson’s 1774 patent on his boring machine didn’t just enrich the inventor, but enabled the growth of Boulton & Watt.

Technological spillovers aren’t the only kind that matter economically. In a classic 1991 paper, the future Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman identified what he called “pecuniary spillovers”: the tendency of industry to cluster in order to exploit lower costs, from both economies of scale and lowered transportation expense. Once a tipping point is reached—once an economy derives more value from making things than, for example, growing them—manufacturing will tend to establish itself in regions with other manufacturers, attracting still more manufacturers.

Krugman’s economic geography is partly about space, explaining why some areas of the globe are wealthier than others. But it is also, even more importantly, about time. The term in general use is that economic growth is highly “path-dependent”—that is, once started down a path of growth, a society tends to continue on that path. As Krugman himself put it, “Small changes in the parameters of the economy4 may have large effects on its qualitative behavior … when some index that takes into account transportation cost, economies of scale, and the share of nonagricultural goods in expenditures crosses a critical threshold, population will start to concentrate and regions to diverge; once started, this process will feed on itself” (emphasis added).

For the last three centuries, the process has been feeding very well throughout the world. But the best feeding has been in places with a distinct judicial, political, and even linguistic history: what Winston Churchill called the English-speaking peoples, what jurists call the common law world, and what a number of modern scholars have termed the Anglosphere—Great Britain and its former colonies, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (though not colonies with more robust indigenous cultures, such as India, Hong Kong, South Africa, and so on).*

The last three centuries of the Anglosphere, whatever its current liabilities in a contemporary, multicultural world, are a reproach to the rather vaguely worded “Cardwell’s Law,” the creation of the economic historian D.S.L. Cardwell, who propounded it in 1972. Cardwell’s Law contends that no nation maintains technological superiority for more than two or three generations, or, in Professor Cardwell’s own words, “no nation has been very creative6 for more than an historically short period.” The economic statistics tell a different story.

In 1700, when Great Britain’s per capita7 gross domestic product was roughly equal to that of Italy, the aggregate world GDP was $371.3 billion in constant 1990 dollars. The Anglosphere’s share, virtually all of it Britain, was a little more than 3 percent. By 1820, the conventional endpoint of the Industrial Revolution, the world’s GDP had nearly doubled, to $694.5 billion, but the Anglosphere’s share had grown even faster: to nearly $50 billion, or more than 7 percent.

At that moment, virtually all of the core inventions of industrialization had, in the economist Alfred Marshall’s phrase, spilled over to the rest of Europe and much of the rest of the world. Moreover, by 1850, the Anglosphere’s “secret”—an absolute and relative advantage in the tinkerers who specialized in the micro-inventions essential to constant improvement of complex machinery—had lost much of its value. The age of scientific invention8 was overtaking the age of intuitive invention, and France and Germany had started to benefit from it.* In 1850, France alone issued92,272 patents, more than Britain and the U.S. combined.

However, fifty years later, in 1870, while the world economy had doubled again, to $1.11 trillion, the share of the Anglosphere was more than 19 percent. In 1900, by this time largely owing to the dramatic growth of the United States, just under 27 percent of the world economy was Anglophonic. In 1940, it was more than 30 percent, and in 1950—after the huge damage of the Second World War—it hit its all-time high of 37 percent; but even in 2000, it had “fallen” only to 28 percent of what was then a $36.7 trillion world economy.

Part of this was population growth. In 1700, the Anglosphere represented less than 2 percent of the world’s population; by 1870, it was more than 6 percent, largely because of the decreased infant mortality and extended life spans directly traceable to increasing income. Since 1870, however, the share of world population has generally been between 6 and 8 percent—and its share of world income has been at least four times greater. The lead has been remarkably durable, even as compared to nations close to the Anglosphere in technical sophistication. Even as late as 2000, the Anglosphere’s per capita GDP was still 36 percent greater than the Western European average—$26,238 vs. $19,264 (and 25 percent more than Japan’s $21,051). Path dependence goes far to explain the durability of the Anglosphere’s dominance of the world’s economy for at least a century and a half after the spread of industrialization; in Paul Krugman’s words, the phenomenon was feeding on itself. Economic prosperity resulted in more economic prosperity.

Which explains why the economic advantage persists, not how it began. It is impossible to look at the last three hundred years without wondering at the persistent advantage accrued during the first decades of the Industrial Revolution, and wondering at its cause.

Or, more to the point, wondering who caused it. In 1963, the historian of science Derek de Solla Price (who was, as it happens, the first to study the Antikythera mechanism in detail) wrote a book entitled Little Science, Big Science, in which he formulated the Price Law (building on the work of others, most especially the early twentieth-century economist Wilfredo Pareto). The Price Law states that the number of individuals responsible for half of all innovations is roughly equal to the square root of the number of total contributors.

Let’s do the math. If the transformation of the world into an industrial economy depended on thirty thousand or so innovations, large and small (this is a generous number; by 1820, the United Kingdom and United States together had issued fewer than ten thousand patents), and the typical inventor was responsible for three of them—which probably understates the case, given the number generated by men like Watt, Roberts, Bramah, and Evans—then the total number of innovators is around ten thousand. By Price’s Law, therefore, half of the Industrial Revolution is the work of about one hundred people. Which is a convenient number: one can far more easily visualize a pantheon of heroes with a hundred members than one with three thousand.

The figure of the “heroic” engineer has been sitting on a carnival dunking stool for more than a century, and one historian after another has taken a turn at knocking him into the water. Part of this is the natural tendency of scholars toward revisionism; if one generation of historians built godlike statues of Watt and Arkwright, then their successors were certain to find feet made of, if not clay, then at least base metal.

But there is more to the antiheroic school of industrial history than simply the Academy’s demands for original scholarship. The unique characteristic of the Industrial Revolution—its sustainability—depended less on “macro-inventions” such as Watt’s separate condenser than on the hundreds of micro-inventions that surrounded it: Henry Maudslay’s leadscrew, Matthew Murray’s D-valve, Richard Trevithick’s fusible plug, and a thousand other improvements owed to a thousand other inventors. Their relative anonymity is an unavoidable consequence of the relative elevation of the Watts and the Arkwrights.

This is why Samuel Smiles, the great hagiographer of British inventions, was in some ways as important as his subjects. It was Smiles, with his biographies of Boulton, Watt, Stephenson, and others, who made a secular religion out of human striving: “It is not the man of the greatest natural vigour11 and capacity who achieves the highest results, but he who employs his powers with the greatest industry and the most carefully disciplined skill….”

It matters less that Smiles was right than that he was believed. It was belief in the chance to become a national hero that, despite equal distribution of talent, and even of expertise, at least throughout Europe, made innovation such a local phenomenon. It is suggestive that Anders Ericsson’s “expert performance” calculations reinforce this: A typical apprenticeship, running as it did for seven years, or fifteen to twenty thousand hours, buys an expert weaver, goldsmith, or millwright; that’s what the apprenticeship system was supposed to do. But the commitment to spend a similar amount learning to be an expert inventor is a lousy economic decision for almost everyone who makes it. Not only does it mean years of working without income—forgoing the income that could have been generated by working at the skill acquired while an apprentice—but it offers no guarantee that the investment will be recouped. While one should be cautious about applying current data to earlier historical eras, it’s worth recalling that twentieth-century inventors, on average, sacrificed nearly one-third of their potential lifetime income.

Thus, despite the fact that those hours, ten thousand at a time, were being invested in skills acquisition all over Europe, the only place where really large numbers of skilled craftsmen decided to become inventors was in the Anglosphere. And it wasn’t that they made enough money to make it a smart decision, so much as the fact that they thought they could.

Nowhere did that thought take root more firmly than in the part of the Anglosphere known as the United States of America.

ON THE THIRD FLOOR of the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is a scale model, constructed of varnished wood, that looks a little like an outrigger canoe with sixteen vertical tubes inserted fore and aft. On May 22, 1849, the device, “a new and improved manner of combining adjustable buoyant air chambers with a steam boat or other vessel for the purpose of enabling their draught of water to be readily lessened to enable them to pass over bars, or through shallow water,” received U.S. patent number 6469. Its inventor was “Abraham Lincoln, of Springfield, in the County of Sangamon, in the State of Illinois.”

Lincoln, the only American president ever awarded a patent, had a long and passionate love for things mechanical. He made his living for many years as a railroad lawyer and appears to have absorbed something of the fascination with machines, and with steam, of the engineers with whom he worked. In his first public speech, in 1832, he spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the need for navigable rivers and canals to accommodate steamboats. In the middle of the Civil War, he signed, on July 1, 1862, the Pacific Railway Act, the authorizing legislation for what would become America’s transcontinental railroad. Even more revealing, in 1859, after his loss in the Illinois senatorial race against Stephen Douglas, he was much in demand for a speech entitled “Discoveries, Inventions, and Improvements” that he gave at agricultural fairs, schools, and self-improvement societies.

The speech—decidedly not one of Lincoln’s best—nonetheless revealed an enthusiasm for mechanical innovation that resonates powerfully even today. “Man,” Lincoln said, “is not the only animal who labors,12 but he is the only one who improves his workmanship … by Discoveries and Inventions.”

The speech goes on to offer a brief history of civilization as seen through the lens of one invention after another:

We can scarcely conceive the possibility of making much of anything else, without the use of iron tools…. the boat is indispensable to navigation [though] it is not probable that the philosophical principle upon which the use of the boat primarily depends—to-wit, the principle that anything will float, which cannot sink without displacing more than its own weight of water—was known … the plow, of very early origin; and reaping and threshing machines, of modern invention, are, at this day, the principal improvements in agriculture…. Take any given space of the earth’s surface—for instance, Illinois; and all the power exerted by all the men, and beasts, and running water, and steam, over and upon it, shall not equal the one hundredth part of what is exerted by the blowing of the wind over and upon the same space. And yet no very successful mode of controlling, and directing the wind, has been discovered….

Lincoln concluded:

The advantageous use of Steam-power is, unquestionably, a modern discovery. And yet, as much as two thousand years ago the power of steam was not only observed, but an ingenious toy was actually made and put in motion by it, at Alexandria in Egypt. What appears strange is that neither the inventor of the toy, nor any one else, for so long a time afterwards, should perceive that steam would move useful machinery as well as a toy…. in the days before Edward Coke’s original Statute on Monopolies, any man could instantly use what another had invented; so that the inventor had no special advantage from his own invention…. The patent system changed this; secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery of new and useful things.

There’s something appealing about starting a book in a museum in London and ending it in one in Washington. However, the real ending takes place just to the north of the National Museum of American History, at another Washington landmark: the United States Department of Commerce, a huge pile of limestone known since 1983 as the Herbert C. Hoover Building. Since 1995, it has housed the White House Visitor Center on its street level, in the same space that was once home to the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Incised in the stone over the Herbert C. Hoover Building’s north entrance is the legend that, with Lincoln’s characteristic brevity, sums up the single most powerful idea in the world:




* In 1861, Ericsson, who had emigrated to the United States in 1839, designed and built the revolutionary ironclad steamship the Monitor.

* Reams of Ph.D. theses have explored why industrialization was greeted with such a different attitude on the other side of the Atlantic, where Emerson, Whitman, and Hart Crane could all celebrate the new nation’s bridges and railroads. It’s not unrelated to America’s early displacement of Britain as the world’s premier economic power.

* This is an argument starter,5 but not a particularly original one. Andrew Roberts argues in his controversial History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900 that the distinction between the period of British ascendancy and of American is roughly the same as that between imperial Rome and its republican ancestor, i.e. not much of a difference at all. The Indian economic historian Deepak Lal believes the rise to predominance of the English-speaking world is the most important event of the last thousand years.

* Not without some envy; Goethe wrote that Germans “regard discovery and invention10 as a splendid personally gained possession, but the clever Englishman transforms it, by a patent, into a real possession…. One may well ask why are they in every respect in advance of us?”

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