The Origins of 20th-Century Progress
Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of
1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact. Vaclav Smil. x + 350
pp. Oxford University Press, 2005. $35.
Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and
Their Consequences. Vaclav Smil. x + 358 pp. Oxford
University Press, 2006. $45.
These two fascinating works are not a conventional synthesis of
social and technological history, but instead emerge from the
intersection of technical innovations, cultural geography, economic
history and environmental studies. Author Vaclav Smil teaches in the
Faculty of the Environment at the University of Manitoba and has
written 23 books. The two under review, Creating the Twentieth
Century and Transforming the Twentieth Century, make a
single argument, stretching from 1867 to the present. Oxford
University Press has configured them as companion volumes, with
similar layouts and jacket designs. Both author and publisher
declare, correctly, that each book can be enjoyed on its own, yet
they deserve to be read together.
In Creating the Twentieth Century, Smil argues that the two
generations before 1914 laid the foundations for an expansive
civilization based on the synergy of fossil fuels, science and
technical innovation. He rejects claims that the computer and the
Internet have caused unprecedented economic acceleration and argues
that the remarkable growth and social change of the 20th century
were based primarily on refinement and development of machines and
processes created before World War I. After a first chapter on the
technical level of Western societies in about 1865, Smil argues for
the transformative nature of electrification (chapter 2), the
internal combustion engine (chapter 3), new materials and chemical
syntheses, particularly nitrogen fixation (chapter 4), and new
information technologies (chapter 5). He suggests that a
well-informed scientist from the end of the 18th century, such as
Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, if brought forward to witness the society
of 1910, would have confronted a "world of inexplicable
wonders." In contrast, "were one of the accomplished
innovators of the early 20th century—Edison or Fessenden,
Haber or Parsons—to be transported from its first decade to
2005, he would have deep understanding of most" of the machines
and processes set before him.
Accordingly, Smil's second volume, Transforming the Twentieth
Century, concerns not technical breakthroughs but the
refinement and intensifying use of previous inventions and
processes. Recent decades, rather than being a period of
acceleration, become largely a time of consolidation. The future,
rather than appearing to be a time of almost unimaginable growth,
becomes more problematic, because, as Smil takes pains to document,
the environmental costs of growth often have not been included when
calculating progress. And calculation is the operative
word, as Smil bolsters the argument with many graphs and statistics.
Taken together, the books are neither an ode to optimism nor a tale
of technological determinism. Smil himself escaped from Communist
Europe in 1969 to teach first at Penn State and later in Canada. He
writes from a Western point of view, but he is decidedly
nondoctrinaire, rejecting both simple liberalism and Marxism. His
account focuses on central Europe, Britain and the United States,
although Asia emerges more fully in the second volume.
Smil largely succeeds in his synthesis, in part because of his broad
and balanced perspective. Just as important is his deep
understanding of science and technology. For example, in
Transforming the Twentieth Century, he comfortably
discusses and draws into his argument chlorofluorocarbons, changes
in raw material use, new techniques of oil-platform construction,
atmospheric CO2 levels since 1200 a.d., fabrication
machinery for silicon wafers, the chemical structure of
thermoplastics, rocket engines and much more. The explication is
assisted by illustrations, including maps, patent drawings, graphs
and photographs. Smil marshals his wide-ranging knowledge into
readable prose that any college graduate can understand.
Smil celebrates inventors, although he worries about the long-term
results of adopting their creations. He writes about technology but
pointedly eschews that word in favor of "technique." He
writes about cultural transformation without an overarching theory
beyond the conviction that technical change underlies (but does not
determine) social change.
Smil has an interesting thesis and many fascinating observations,
but sometimes linkages are missing. In particular, by dividing his
story into two books, he makes World War I disappear from the first
volume. The war seems to me its logical, if disastrous, culmination.
And even in the second volume, the war receives only scattered
attention. Yet the very machines and processes that Smil finds so
important facilitated the mass production of death. The internal
combustion engine made possible trucks, tanks and bombers. Nitrogen
fixation supplied endless explosives, synthetic chemistry produced
poison gas, and electrification made possible a host of military
technologies, as well as the assembly line's mass production of weaponry.
Smil does not entirely overlook the military uses of these machines
and processes, but he pushes warfare too far into the background.
Perhaps the reason is that his books are primarily about how new
technologies facilitated enormous changes in production and
consumption, and only secondarily about the social, environmental,
military and political consequences. Symptomatically, the atom bomb
is discussed in a chapter titled "Energy Conversions."
Smil cannot cover everything, even in two books. However, the
trajectory of his history would feel far different if the first
volume ended with a 10-page meditation on World War I, or if the
one concluded with the conflict in Iraq.
Smil is not that sort of historian, however, but works more in the
tradition of Fernand Braudel and the French annales school.
They, too, focused on long-term trends, with particular emphasis on
agriculture, energy, communication and transportation. Smil gives a
succinct technical summary of the development of computers from 1932
to the present but devotes less space to how these machines got from
the laboratory to the marketplace or their often unexpected uses. He
often writes as an internalist, mostly concerned with how things
were invented and how they work. Usually internalists prefer to
write focused case studies, but Smil is also concerned with the
changes each machine or new process makes possible. He succeeds in
linking a wide range of examples in a sweeping argument that
celebrates technical ingenuity, keeps in view the ecological costs
of misusing this legacy and sensibly avoids both Alvin Toffler's
simplistic optimistic determinism and Jacques Ellul's gloomy
conclusion that the human will is powerless when confronted with "technique."
Smil never mentions the American historian and man of letters Henry
Adams (1838–1918), although he does draw on Adams's younger
British contemporary, H. G. Wells. This is a pity, for Adams
anticipated Smil's argument that science and technical development
accelerated history and transformed society so decisively during the
late 19th century that it constituted a fundamental break in human
experience. Adams characterized the rupture in a letter to a friend:
A world so different from that of my childhood or
middle-life can't belong to the same scheme. It shifts from one
motive to another, without sequence. . . . Out of a medieval,
primitive, crawling infant of 1838, to find oneself a howling,
steaming, exploding, Marconiing, radiumating, automobiling maniac of
1904 exceeds belief.
In his last years, Adams took thermodynamics as his starting point
and concluded that because entropy was the unavoidable by-product of
all transformations of energy, no historian could believe in
progress. He feared the imminent heat death of the universe. A
century later, Smil fears the consequences of global warming and
asks, "Will this complex, high-energy, machine-dependent
civilization survive the 21st century? We cannot know."
Rejecting determinism, he finds our future open, but uncertain.