- Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences
Vaclav Smil’s Transforming the Twentieth Century is an insightful, big-picture history of technological change in the twentieth century. The subtitle of the book, “Technical Innovations and Their Consequences,” sums up the author’s approach: to identify crucial areas of technological innovation and to explore how they have shaped the broader history of the long twentieth century. Smil is no technological determinist, however. His clear-headed analysis and meticulously collected evidence point to an interplay of social, political, and technological factors that neither relegates technology to the margins nor unreasonably overstates the power of technology, or even people using technology, to drive social change.
In previous works, Smil has argued that technical innovations in the late nineteenth century constituted a major break with the past—a “great saltation” in his terms. In the twentieth century however, he [End Page 478] identifies changes in scale, rather than radical novelty, as the central theme. In a series of chapters covering energy conversion, materials, automation, transport, communication, and information, Smil explores the social, political, and technological factors that informed this dramatic change in scale. Basic innovations of earlier years were elaborated through change in size (whether larger or smaller), proliferation, and the intensity and efficiency of their exploitation. The sum of these changes have, however, had dramatic consequences in Smil’s view, as they have “created a civilization that differs in several fundamental ways from previous societies” (p. 254). He stresses growing dependence on interconnected, complex systems that offer constraint as well as convenience; a growing detachment from the physical world; a growth in productivity and the possibility of economic prosperity with an increasingly skewed distribution of that prosperity; and a growth in global thinking that has accompanied both the opportunities and the penalties (such as pollution) of the increases in scale.
Smil’s choice of technologies may not all seem equally high profile. Yet the logic of his choices is clearly explained and indeed distinguishes Smil’s throughtful analysis from the genre of popular “greatest inventions” books. By choosing infrastructural and often ignored or taken-for-granted technologies, such as the gas turbine, he shows how they, as much as digital computers and nuclear energy, have become deeply implicated in the very social and political structure of the contemporary world. These technologies may seem common, even dull, on first glance, but it is exactly their ubiquity that makes them worth understanding more fully, as Smil aptly shows. Smil pays close attention to the technological as well as the social and political context of these innovations, exploring the incremental innovations and changing circumstances that are both essential for explaining why certain ways of doing things have become so embedded in our societies.
Because Smil is most interested in changes of scale, much of the evidence he offers to demonstrate the changes of the twentieth century is statistical and graphical, showing increases in production or use of energy, materials, and forms of transportation, for example. He also provides a fair level of technical detail to explain how such changes became possible and, not incidentally, help support his argument about the nature of twentieth-century innovation. He does not neglect the people in the story, although his focus is more on those involved in invention from the side of production and less on those mediators and users who put their own stamp on technological change. The users are visible primarily through the statistics themselves, and as such don’t play as large a role in this story as they do in much recent scholarship [End Page 479] in the history of technology. Some may find this approach somewhat dry and detached, especially as compared to detailed studies of smaller scope that can offer a richer, more densely textured engagement with the interplay of technological and social change. This is a familiar trade-off however, between historical scope and detail, and Smil offers a solid justification for his approach and much insight in his analysis. Even those for whom this...