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  • Creating the 20th Century
  • Roger Luckhurst
Vaclav Smil. Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867–1914 and Their Lasting Impact. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. ix + 350. $35.00

Readers with a penchant for contemporary science fiction or twenty-first-century futurology might well have heard of the so-called "technological Singularity." This is the idea that technical development has reached a critical point of acceleration and that we are on the cusp of a profound and radical transformation, usually connected to the emergence of machine intelligence. By 2015 or 2030, these breathless accounts declare, we will have entered a posthuman world. In utopian accounts, this means symbiosis with machines that deliver, amongst other delights, human immortality. In dystopian accounts, the machines will think for a split second before realizing that humans are an irrelevance to their efficient operation. This writing always tilts headlong into the rush of the future, without a care for the rubble of history. Yet those who imagine a prospective Singularity might do well to read Smil's informative book, for his claim is in effect that a kind of Singularity happened over one hundred years ago, and that we are still [End Page 229] working out its consequences. The years 1867 and 1914 mark "the time when the modern world was created, when the greatest technological discontinuity in history took place." These "truly revolutionary innovations not only changed the course of the innovating societies but also were eventually translated into profound global impacts." To avoid any dispute about whether this constituted the second Industrial Revolution or not, Smil names the epoch The Age of Synergy, "a profound technological singularity."

Smil defends his periodisation by arguing for a cluster of significant inventions around 1867: electric dynamos, open-hearth furnaces that industrialize steelmaking, Alfred Nobel's patenting of dynamite, the first typewriter, and the first mass-produced paper production. He also adds that Marx published Das Kapital in 1867, "a muddled but extraordinarily influential piece of ideological writing," as he rather disarmingly summarizes it. Then 1914 presents another cluster: Ford's assembly line, the patent for tungsten filament lightbulbs (which renders them a reliable means of illumination), Niels Bohr's description of atomic structure, and Goddard's patent for a multiple-stage rocket. As one can guess, modernity here is defined by technical inventions, and this raises early on the issue of technological determinism. The introduction wants to resist a "deterministic, techniques-driven interpretation of modern history," yet only two pages later Smil argues that energy technologies are pivotal "in setting the pace and determining the ambience of a society." The priorities are clear.

In his four central chapters, Smil examines technical innovations in electricity, the internal combustion engine, new synthetic materials or processes, and new communication devices. These technical histories are interspersed with capsule inventor biographies and the chapters are lavishly illustrated with photographs, diagrams, graphs and technical drawings of machines and processes. For literary and cultural historians, some of this material will be quite familiar: exemplary texts such as Stephen Kern's Culture of Time and Space link together innovations in telephones or gramophones with late-Victorian and early modernist cultural production, and a whole field of media studies has developed around Friedrich Kittler's proposal that a particular "discourse network," emerging in around 1900, meant that technical innovations transformed forms of inscription and thus writing and thus subjectivity. However, Smil is not very interested in these kinds of cultural impact. There is an expression of regret that he could not "follow concurrently those fascinating artistic developments" identified as [End Page 230] modernist, not least because "the world of technique left many brilliant imprints on the work of art." Sometimes a literary reference will appear (Toad's maniacal driving in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, in one charming instance). Yet, for the most part, this is a history written within the framework of a rather traditional "science and technology studies" (STS) approach: it does not really seek interdisciplinary connections until the sixth chapter, and then in a relatively narrow socioeconomic way.

Reading straight STS history has its virtues. Readers of ELT will know about the importance of Ford's assembly...


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pp. 229-232
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Will Be Archived 2021
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