Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and their Consequences

  • Vaclav Smil
Oxford University: 2006. 358 pp. $45, £26.99 0195168755 | ISBN: 0-195-16875-5

The Industrial Revolution was accompanied by a fundamental change in the evolution of technology in Western society. In technological terms it is the historical dividing line between an era of heuristic advances in production systems and a time of focused application of the scientific approach to increasing productivity. But historians also recognize the importance of the chemical revolution of the late nineteenth century. This saw the introduction of continuous industrial processing, signalling a new relationship between human labour and the materials on which they worked, although the manufacturing process was still dominated by batch production. The next major change, just after the Second World War, was the scientific and technological revolution, which potentially heralded the end of the millennia-old systems of the mechanical processing of materials, replacing them with biological, chemical and molecular-level production processes.

J. D. Bernal was the key figure behind studies of technology's role in history, influenced heavily by the decisive interventions of the Soviet delegation to the 1931 Congress of the History of Science in London. In particular, Boris Hessen's paper, by demonstrating how even Newton's most abstract concerns in Principia were profoundly influenced by the political economy of the time, reshaped the way in which the history of science would be viewed. Bernal's ideas were subsequently developed in the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, where some very interesting work was done in the 1970s and 80s. However, no significant work on this has emerged from there since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The imprint of that Eastern European tradition seems to remain with Vaclav Smil, even though he moved from Czechoslovakia to North America in 1969. His book Creating the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2005) described the impact of post-1870s technological developments on society, and his new book, Transforming the Twentieth Century, carries on where the first left off. Between them they cover both the continuous-processing, and the scientific and technological revolutions.

The automated production line symbolizes the manufacturing advances of the late twentieth century. Credit: S. ROWELL/GETTY

In Transforming the Twentieth Century, Smil describes in detail the changes brought about by two distinct processes. The first is the development of innovations originally introduced between 1867 and 1914, whose full impact only became apparent after the Second World War. He then describes the effects of the post-war introduction of microelectronics, new materials and different methods of processing. In separate chapters he presents case studies of changes in energy conversion, in the development and uses of new materials, in the methods of production and, finally, in means of transportation, communication and information processing. He includes real technological change (which involves changes in the knowledge systems of material production), along with advances in technological artefacts (such as aircraft and means of railway locomotion) and technological systems (the Internet). The book, in effect, examines the making of modern society through technological change. This approach, which was pioneered by Siegfried Giedion some 60 years ago in his book Mechanization Takes Command, has the advantage of making the overwhelming impact of technological change more easily apparent by considering its effects on everyday life. (Giedion, incidentally, is absent from the bibliography.)

In developing his reasons for writing the book, Smil raises several interesting points. He notes that the great increase in the fuel efficiency of North American cars after 1973 came not from market-based competition, but from government legislation that required greater economy in the use of fuels. Equally important is his methodological observation that innovations are often the result of “successful transformative engineering: a system assembled from proven ingredients whose synergies change a mundane experience to such an extent that it becomes not just new but highly desirable”.

These comments, and others scattered throughout the introductory chapter of the book, raise expectations of broader insights to be drawn from the detailed case studies presented later. However, subsequent chapters give an unmistakeable sense that Smil has lost control of the process by which his argument might develop, among the details of the case at hand. As a result, the case studies remain in the form of encyclopaedic entries, rather than instances by which the nuances of a more general and complex argument might have developed. To be fair to Smil, he notes in the preface that he has no intention of proposing a great thesis. But the reader cannot help feeling that the enormous effort expended in collecting information throughout the book deserves a rather greater degree of conceptual closure.