Book Summary: “Creating the Twentieth Century” by Vaclav Smil

Book Review

Creating the Twentieth Century

Title: Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact
Author: Vaclav Smil
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of book

Technological innovation during the late 19th Century, with particular focus on energy, materials and transportation.

Key Take-Aways

  • The time period between 1867 and 1914 was one of the most extraordinary times of innovation.
  • Key innovations include steam turbine, jet turbine, steel, concrete, electric grid, polyphase electric motors, transformers, the internal combustion engine, automobile, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, oil extraction and refining, plumbing and sanitation.
  • The economic growth of the 20th Century was primarily based on gradually working out the applications of these innovations .

Other books by the same author:

Important Quotes from Book

In this book I demonstrate that the fundamental means to realize nearly all of the 20th-century accomplishments were put in place even before the century began, mostly during the three closing decades of the 19th century and in the years preceding WWI. That period ranks as history’s most remarkable discontinuity not only because of the extensive sweep of its innovations but also because of the rapidity of fundamental advances that were achieved during that time. This combination makes it a unique event.

In technical terms there are two saltation periods of human history that stand apart as the times of the two most astounding, broad, and rapid innovation spurts. The first one, purely oriental, took place during the Han dynasty China (207 b .c .e .–9 c .e .);… the impact of the late 19th and the early 20th century advances was almost instantaneous,  as their commercial adoption and widespread diffusion were very rapid.

The era’s second key attribute is the extraordinary concatenation of a large number of scientific and technical advances.

The period’s fundamental technical advances include, above all, large-scale electricity generation and transmission and the inventions of new prime movers the great inheritance  and energy converters. Internal combustion engines and electric motors have eventually become the world’s most common mechanical prime movers.

The third remarkable attribute of the pre-WWI era is the rate with which all kinds of innovations were promptly improved after their introduction —made more efficient, more convenient to use, less expensive, and hence available on truly mass scales.

The fourth notable characteristic of the great pre-WWI technical discontinuity is the imagination and boldness of new proposals.

Finally, there is the epoch-making nature of these technical advances , the proximate reason for writing this book: most of them are still with us.

Such a profound and abrupt discontinuity with such lasting consequences has no equivalent in history. The closest analogy in the more recent human prehistory was obviously the emergence of the first settled agricultural societies nearly 10,000 years ago.

  1. “The Nature of Technology” by W. Brian Arthur
  2. “Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny” by Robert Wright
  3. “The Origin of Wealth” by Eric D. Beinhocker
  4. “Transforming the Twentieth Century” by Vaclav Smil
  5. “Unbound: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human” by Richard L. Currier
  6. “Learning by Doing” by James Bessen
  7. “Technology: A World History” by Daniel Headrick
  8. “The Box: How the Shipping Container…” by Marc Levinson

If you would like to learn more about technological innovation in history, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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