The Origins of 20th-Century Progress

David E. Nye reviews Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact and Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences, both by Vaclav Smil, in Amercian Scientist:

Fullimage_20072595745_846In Creating the Twentieth Century, Smil argues that the two generations before 1914 laid the foundations for an expansive civilization based on the synergy of fossil fuels, science and technical innovation. He rejects claims that the computer and the Internet have caused unprecedented economic acceleration and argues that the remarkable growth and social change of the 20th century were based primarily on refinement and development of machines and processes created before World War I. After a first chapter on the technical level of Western societies in about 1865, Smil argues for the transformative nature of electrification (chapter 2), the internal combustion engine (chapter 3), new materials and chemical syntheses, particularly nitrogen fixation (chapter 4), and new information technologies (chapter 5). He suggests that a well-informed scientist from the end of the 18th century, such as Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, if brought forward to witness the society of 1910, would have confronted a “world of inexplicable wonders.” In contrast, “were one of the accomplished innovators of the early 20th century—Edison or Fessenden, Haber or Parsons—to be transported from its first decade to 2005, he would have deep understanding of most” of the machines and processes set before him.

Accordingly, Smil’s second volume, Transforming the Twentieth Century, concerns not technical breakthroughs but the refinement and intensifying use of previous inventions and processes. Recent decades, rather than being a period of acceleration, become largely a time of consolidation. The future, rather than appearing to be a time of almost unimaginable growth, becomes more problematic, because, as Smil takes pains to document, the environmental costs of growth often have not been included when calculating progress. And calculation is the operative word, as Smil bolsters the argument with many graphs and statistics.

More here.

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