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

Transforming the Twentieth Century

Title: Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences
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

Smil explores the technological innovations of the 20th Century with particular focus on those that transform energy.

Key Take-aways

  • “Prime Movers”, technologies that transform energy, are particularly important forms of innovation.
  • The two most important prime movers of the 20th Century were the internal combustion engine (used for cars, trucks and ships) and the steam turbine (used for generating electricity).
  • Most of the important technologies of the 20th Century were actually invented in the late 19th Century, but it took engineers over a century to learn of all their applications and how to optimize them.

Other books by the same author:

Important Quotes from Book

“While I have no wish to promote simplistic technical determinism, this book will make it clear that many critical economic, social, and political features and trends of the 20th century are much more explicable—especially when seen in long-term, cumulative perspectives—through the synergy of science, technical advances, and high energy use than by the recourse to the traditionally dominant cultural, political, and ideological explanations.”

“Dominant prime movers are the key physical determinants of productive capacities and hence also of the quality and tempo of life in any society. The 20th century was energized mostly by two prime movers whose genesis during the 1880s, and their subsequent evolution… : internal combustion engines, whose large numbers dominate aggregate installed power capacity, and steam turbines, the most powerful energy converters in common use. But one new prime mover rose to great prominence: by the end of the 20th century, gas turbines were the world’s most reliable, as well as highly durable, energy converters and hence the dominant prime movers in both military and commercial flight and the most convenient and highly flexible means of electricity generation.”

“an unmistakable formation of S-shaped growth curves was a major recurrent theme in the history of the 20th-century energy techniques.”

“Four universal measures that revolutionized traditional agriculture and turned it into a modern economic activity include the mechanization of field and crop processing tasks energized by engines and motors; use of inorganic fertilizers, and particularly of synthetic nitrogen compounds; applications of agrochemicals to combat pests and weeds; and development of new high-yielding cultivars. None of these advances could have happened without the inputs of fossil fuels and electricity or without the introduction of new prime movers.”

“The great technical saltation that took place during the two pre-WWI generations introduced new forms of energy, new prime movers, new materials, new industrial, agricultural, transportation, and household machines, and new ways of communication and information processing. Advances of the 20th century improved all of these techniques and brought major innovations in and brought major innovations in energy conversion, materials, agricultural mechanization, industrial manufacturing, and telecommunication, many of them possible only thanks to solid-state microelectronics that had rapidly penetrated every segment of modern economies. These technical transformations created a civilization that differs in several fundamental ways from all previous societies.”

“Peak unit capacities of prime movers that can deliver sustained power rose about 15 million times in 10,000 years—from 100 W from sustained human labor to 1.5 GW for the largest steam turbogenerators—with more than 99% of the rise taking place during the 20th century”

“In 1900 even well-off U.S. urban households had only half a dozen low-power lightbulbs and one or two small appliances whose combined power rating was far below 1 kW; during the late 1990s an all-electric, air-conditioned exurban house had more than 80 switches and outlets ready to power lights and appliances that could draw more than 30 kW, and adding the family’s three vehicles would raise the total power under the household’s control close to 500 kW! In the past this power—although nowhere near a comparable level of convenience, versatility, flexibility, and reliability—could be commanded only by an owner of a Roman latifundia with about 6,000 strong slaves, or during the 1890s by a landlord with 3,000 workers and 400 big draft horses.”

“And it is remarkable how many individual inventors or early corporate pioneers that developed major innovations turned to be either outright losers or at best also-runs while nimble marketing made fortunes for latecomers.”

“Many exceptional inventors are remembered only by a small number of experts while their epoch- making ideas served to enrich and aggrandize others.”

“The history of computing offers many examples of the fate common in the early phases of technical revolutions, the demise of pioneers… More surprising has been the retreat or demise of companies that emerged a long time ago as the winners of innovative contests but, despite their size and experience, could not maintain that leading status. The two most prominent generic examples are the U.S. automobile and aircraft industries.”

“These universal labor transformations brought three fundamental personal benefits to every segment of modern workforce: real wages rose, average work hours declined, and workplace safety improved”

“But all of these multiples showing the secular rise of per capita GDP or average family income are substantial underestimates of real gains. In 1900 an income eight times larger than the average could not buy the American standard of living in the year 2000 because so many goods and services taken for granted in 2000 did not even exist in 1900. ”

“Solow (1957) came out with a startling attribution: between 1909 and 1949 the U.S. economy doubled its gross output per hour of work, and some 88% of that increase could be attributed to technical changes.”

“What we do know is that the past six generations have amounted to the most rapid and the most profound change our species has experienced in its 5,000 years of recorded history. During the two pre-1914 generations we laid the foundations for an expansive civilization based on synergy of fossil fuels, science, and technical innovation. The 20th century had followed along the same path—and hence the profound indebtedness and the inevitable continuities.”

  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. “Creating 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 the history of technological innovation, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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