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Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact

Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact - Vaclav Smil Smil argues that the modern world was largely created by technical advances achieved between the end of the American Civil War and the beginning of World War I, in a period he calls the “Age of Synergy.” Many products and “techniques whose everyday use keeps defining and shaping the modern civilization had not undergone any fundamental change during the course of the 20th century.” (5) Taking aim at prophets of discontinuity like Kurzweil, Smil says that currently fashionable “perceptions of accelerating innovation are ahistorical, myopic perspectives proffered by zealots of electronic faith.” The idea of accelerating evolution, Smil says, is teleological. In its place, he offers a combination of “phyletic gradualism and punctuated equilibrium.” (6) Well, so much for the singularity.Interestingly, the “most far-reaching of all modern technical innovations...[was] the synthesis of ammonia from its elements.” (7) The Haber-Bosch process made nitrogen fertilizers available on an unprecedented scale (relative to previous sources, Peruvian guano and Chilean nitrate), allowing the world’s human population to expand to its current level. Without it, Smil says, “the world could not support more than about 3.5 billion people.” (23) Interestingly, Smil always says “technical innovation” or “technique” -- toward the end of the book he congratulates George Orwell for the same thing (quoting a passage from a 1942 BBC broadcast, 259), and calls attention to the fact that he has not used the fuzzier term “technology” a single time in the text. This might be frustrating for researchers searching keywords in the future, but it’s an interesting distinction.The key characteristics of the “Unprecedented Saltation” of 1867-1914, Smil says, were: 1. that the impact of these technical advances was almost instantaneous, 2. the extraordinary concatenation of a large number of scientific and technical advances, 3. the rate with which all kinds of innovations were promptly improved after their introduction, 4. the imagination and boldness of new proposals, and 5. the epoch-making nature of these technical advances. (8-12)While discussing periodization, Smil mentions that he is “deliberately ignoring” dating by economic cycles like the Kondratiev wave. He’s also avoiding, although he doesn’t say so, any discussion of cultural, economic and social changes that impacted things like producer financing and consumer behavior. Tracing the feedback between technical innovation and these other areas is not the mission of this book. But Smil does deal with the world beyond science: “Edison’s key insight,” he says was not technical, but “that any commercially viable lighting system must minimize electricity consumption and hence must use high-resistance filaments with lights connected in parallel across a constant-voltage system” (41) Edison was not designing a light bulb for the laboratory, he was designing a complete electrical generation and delivery system. The bulb was just the visible end-point of a much more complex project. Also, “between 1880 and 1896 more than $2 million was spent in prosecuting more than 100 lawsuits” for patent infringement. (43) Technology was no place for the faint-hearted, and the best technician didn’t always win. Not until 1943, a few months after Nicola Tesla’s death, did the US Supreme Court finally acknowledge the priority of his patents over Marconi’s, Smil says. And ironically, it was “merely a way for the court to avoid a decision regarding Marconi Co. suit against the U.S. government for using its patents.” (251) Smil compare’s Marconi’s ability to “package, and slightly improve, what is readily available,” and benefit from “alliances with powerful users” with Microsoft’s success marketing Windows. He identifies Bill Gates with Marconi, whose status as “not a great technical innovator” was shown by his insistence that his radio would only be used to transmit Morse code.Smil gives Edison credit for being able to play the game, but clearly has a soft spot for Tesla and even George Westinghouse, who he reminds us had 361 patents to his credit. The stories of these people and their technical innovations would be even better, if they were expanded to include personal and business elements, which will probably lead me to read biographies of many of them when I have some free time. In his conclusion, Smil supports his claim for the unique influence of technical change during this period by pointing out that “only two of today’s 10 largest multinationals...were not set up before 1914.” (301) In addition to this short list, a quick look at the Fortune 500 would probably show that most of the world’s business is probably based on techniques whose origins can be traced to his Age of Synergy. Although that’s clearly a trailing indicator, it does seem fair to conclude that claims about the exceptional nature of the digital age are overblown. Smil shows that technical changes, and common sense suggests that the associated economic and social changes of the late 19th century still account for most of the world in which we live.