James Watt & Intellectual Property

James Watt Did Not Want Information to Be Free

By Clifford D. Conner

What was that most powerful idea that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution? The idea of latent heat? Thermodynamics? Steam power? No, it was the idea that an inventor’s innovations could be considered property deserving the protection of law that provided the incentive—the “fuel of interest”—for inventors to invent, and which thereby set into motion the “miracle of sustainable innovation” that began with the Industrial Revolution and has kept rolling ever since.

A review of The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry & Innovation, by William Rosen (University of Chicago Press, 2010)


Not even the sum total of macro- and micro-inventions can explain the phenomenon; it took “a radical transformation in the process of invention itself” to create the Industrial Revolution. And that happened in eighteenth-century England, Rosen argues, because that is where the most powerful idea (MPI) had previously emerged and taken root.

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