Creating and Transforming the Twentieth Century Through Technical Innovations

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* Book(s): Vaclav Smil. 1) Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact; 2) Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences.




"In Creating the Twentieth Century and Transforming the Twentieth Century Smil argues that the last few decades of the 1800s formed a unique moment in the history of the human species. He calls these decades “history’s most remarkable discontinuity.”4 Smil drives the point home through a thought experiment. Imagine alien beings observing the Earth at great remove. Our artistic, religious, and aesthetic achievements are unlikely to carry meaning across species; these aliens would witness the rise and fall of empires with the same indifference we view struggles for dominance among the chimpanzees. For these onlookers, the measure of our civilization would be material.5 The Neolithic revolution would be legible to these aliens: it reshaped landscapes, ballooned the human population, harnessed non-human energy sources for human uses, and was the prerequisite for both polis and empire. The Columbian Exchange is another possible “discontinuity” on this scale: it was a shock to the biosphere of geological significance and the first step in knitting all of humanity into a common complex system.

But the Neolithic Revolution took centuries to invent and millennia to spread. The technical innovations that went to market in the late 19th century were different. They brought about changes equally epochal—but the innovations behind them were invented in the course of one human lifespan. These devices powered a planetary transition. For the first time our imaginary observers in orbit would see the dark side of Earth twinkle with light. On the light side of the Earth, they would see an equally astonishing transformation as many brown and green surfaces of our planet were replaced by gray. The composition of the atmosphere shifted; the balance of the Earth’s mammalian biomass tipped towards human flesh and human food. The animals humans once harnessed for work were replaced by machines humans built. The physical materials that sheltered and warmed us were transformed entirely. For the first time it was possible for millions—and soon billions—of us to spend our entire lives in essentially artificial environments. The amount of energy we consume and the mass of physical material we manipulate began an exponential journey skyward.

Because of technical advances that occurred between 1867 and 1914, the modes of human travel, the mediums of human communication, the methods by which humans heated, formed, and shaped their environment, and the source of the energy flows that powered all these wonders all changed. Two generations of scientists and inventors birthed a new form of human civilization. It is the civilization we still live in today.

The list of technical inventions that made this new world possible is fairly small. Smil focuses on steam turbines, internal combustion engines, electric motors, alternators, transformers and rectifiers, incandescent light, electromagnetic waves, recorded sound, linotype machines, sulfate pulp, photographic film, aluminum smelting, dephosphorised steel and steel alloys, reinforced concrete, nitroglycerin, and synthesized ammonia. Most of these inventions had commercial applications before the First World War. Very few inventions from the 20th century have had equal impact. Smil believes that nuclear fission, rocketry, and solid-state electronics are the only 20th century technical advances of equal import. He concedes that public radio, television, plastics, and gas turbines are also contenders, but these inventions straddle the centuries, more commercial applications of scientific principles that developed in the pre-WWI era than pure creations of the period that followed. Most other great 20th century innovations were not “zero to one” inventions of this sort, but qualitative refinements of the Gilded Age technology.

In his second volume Smil makes this point with another thought experiment:

- "Even the most accomplished engineers and scientists who were alive in 1800 would face, if translocated a century into the future, the electric system of the year 1900 with astonishment and near utter incomprehension. In 1900, less than two decades after the system’s tentative beginnings, the world had a completely unprecedented and highly elaborate means of producing a new form of energy (by using larger steam turbogenerators), changing its voltage and transmitting it with minimized losses across longer distance (by using transformers and high-voltage conduits) and converting it with increasing efficiencies with new ingenious prime movers (electric motors), new sources of light (incandescent bulbs), and new industrial processes (electric arc furnaces)." .. In contrast, if the brilliant creators of this system, men including Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, and Charles Parsons (figure 1.4), could see the electric networks of the late 20th century, they would be very familiar with nearly all of their major components, as the fundamentals of their grand designs fashioned before 1900 remained unchanged. The same lack of shocked incomprehension would be experienced by the best pre-WWI engineers able to behold our automobile engines (still conceptually the same four- stroke Otto-cycle machines or inherently more efficient diesel engines), our skyscrapers (still built with structural steel and reinforced concrete), our wireless traffic (still carried by hertzian waves), or printed images (still produced by the halftone technique."

Our quotidian debt to great innovators of the two pre-WWI generations thus remains immense, and even if you have no intent to find out the actual extent of this technical inheritance by reading Creating the Twentieth Century, you can begin to realize it just by listing the devices, machines, and processes that you rely on every day and then trying to find their origins: the share that goes back to the 1867– 1914 period is stunning. Some of these inventions—mostly such simple metallic items as paperclips, crimped caps on beer bottles, barbed wires, or spring mouse traps—remain exactly as they were at the time of their commercialization more than a century ago, but most of them were transformed into qualitatively superior products.

The transition from an animal-powered, low-mass civilization to an electrified, mechanical, high-mass civilization accounts for the lion’s share of global economic growth. It has allowed our species to replace villages of mud with cities of steel. This transition accounts for the boom years of American, European, and Japanese expansion in the 20th century, as well as the growth of China in the 21st. If, as a recent study in Nature tells us, “human made mass” now exceeds all the biomass on our planet, Smil would remind us that most of this mass is made of materials invented between 1867 and 1914."



The Three Industrial Revolutions

"Economic historians sometimes speak of three industrial revolutions. The first, from approximately 1760 to 1820, saw the introduction of factory manufacturing powered by steam or water into textile production and other fields of “light industry.” This is often described as a transition point in human history equal in weight to the invention of the plow or the domestication of crops. The second industrial revolution is summarized above, as it is the main subject of Smil’s two volumes. The third industrial revolution, often dated from 1970 to 2000, marks the transition from mechanical and analogue electronics to digital electronics. It is also known as the “Digital Revolution.” We are intimately familiar with the effects of this revolution on modern life."