Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact

Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact

Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact

Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact

Synopsis

The period between 1867 and 1914 remains the greatest watershed in human history since the emergence of settled agricultural societies: the time when an expansive civilization based on synergy of fuels, science, and technical innovation was born. At its beginnings in the 1870s were dynamite, the telephone, photographic film, and the first light bulbs. Its peak decade - the astonishing 1880s - brought electricity - generating plants, electric motors, steam turbines, the gramophone, cars, aluminum production, air-filled rubber tires, and prestressed concrete. And its post-1900 period saw the first airplanes, tractors, radio signals and plastics, neon lights and assembly line production. This book is a systematic interdisciplinary account of the history of this outpouring of European and American intellect and of its truly epochal consequences. It takes a close look at four fundamental classes of these epoch-making innovations: formation, diffusion, and standardization of electric systems; invention and rapid adoption of internal combustion engines; the unprecedented pace of new chemical syntheses and material substitutions; and the birth of a new information age. These chapters are followed by an evaluation of the lasting impact these advances had on the 20th century, that is, the creation of high-energy societies engaged in mass production aimed at improving standards of living.

Excerpt

This book has been on my mind for more than three decades. My first musings about the technically exceptional nature of the two pre-WWI generations go back to the late 1960s, before Eva and I escaped from a newly invaded province of the Soviet Empire to Pennsylvanian ridge and valley countryside. I worked on some of its topics (for other publications) during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, and I finally began to write it in 2002. In the words that my favorite composer used in dedicating his quartets, it is the result of lunga, e laboriosa fattica—and yet I wish that the task could continue. I have a selfish and an objective reason for this: further immersion in the world of pre-WWI innovations would bring more revelations, surprises, and confirmations, and I would also like more space as there are many topics that I addressed only cursorily, many reflections and considerations that I had to leave out. At the same time, I have always followed Faraday’s great dictum— work, finish, publish—and so here is my incomplete and imperfect story of one of the greatest adventures in history, my homage to the creators of a new world.

My great intellectual debt to hundreds of historians, engineers, and economists without whose penetrative work this volume could not have been written is obvious, and I must thank Douglas Fast for completing the unusually challenging job of preparing more than 120 images that are an integral part of this book. And I offer no apologies for what some may see as too many numbers: without quantification, there is no real appreciation of the era’s fundamental and speedy achievements and of the true magnitude of its accomplishments. Metric system and scientific units and prefixes (listed and defined below) are used throughout. Finally, what not to expect. This is neither a world history of the two pre-WWI generations seen through a prism of technical innovations nor an economic history of the period written with an engineering slant.

The book is not intended to be either an extended argument for technical determinism in human affairs or an uncritical exaltation of an era. I am quite . . .

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