Whenever I’m looking for a new book to read, I find that Bill Gates’ blog isn’t a bad place to start. It was there I found his review of “The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention.”
The book is a thorough exploration of the invention of the steam engine beyond the technical details. More so, author William Rosen focuses on the environment of science and philosophy in 17th- and 18th-century England that made the steam engine all but inevitable. The greatest innovation of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, Rosen argues, is not the steam engine, but the process of invention itself.
Gates provides a more intriguing summary book’s scope than I could, so I encourage you to read his write-up if you want to learn more (or just read the book!). However, my interest in cognition and the human brain led me to greatly appreciate one particular chapter of Rosen’s work – an exploration of the “eureka moment.”
As the (possibly apocryphal) story goes, James Watt was walking through a green space, thinking about how to build a better steam engine, when suddenly, “the whole thing was arranged in my mind” – meaning the idea hit him to create a separate condenser on his steam engine that exponentially increased the power produced and cut the fuel cost by more than half. Noticing this seemed to happen more often in the Industrial Revolution than any time in history, Rosen examines why we tend to have these eureka moments, or how he puts it, “solving problems without conscious effort, after effort has failed.”