Concorde supersonic aircraft

Book review: ‘Invention and Innovation’ by Vaclav Smil

Image credit: Phil Emmerson/Dreamstime

A readable history highlighting the technologies that enjoyed brief but massive success before falling from grace.

While general usage tends to regard the terms invention and innovation as interchangeable synonyms, the eagle-eyed engineer will already be aware of the subtle but important difference between the two. While invention is focused on coming up with the ideas and discoveries in the first place, as Vaclav Smil says in his latest in a long line of highly readable analyses of the modern world, innovation is “perhaps best understood as the process of introducing, adopting, and mastering new materials, products, processes and ideas.”

As Smil remarks early in ‘Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure’ (The MIT Press, £20.58, ISBN 9780262048057), after a tortuously slow start for humankind in which it took millennia to develop even the most basic hand tools, we’ve become prolific – especially in the past few centuries – in making the world an easier place to live in by mastering the overlapping domains of invention and innovation. Just look at the exponential rise in patents, he says, before admitting that this might not be the best way of looking at the ever-rising curve.

Along the way, our inventions have led to disasters (think Titanic), commercial boat-missing (Betamax), embarrassments (Power Mac G4 Cube) and downright flops (Nikola Tesla’s proposed World Wireless System for delivering telecommunication services and electrical power). But these aren’t the focus of Smil’s ‘Invention and Innovation’, because what he’s chosen to concentrate on is, as his subtitle explains, the scenarios that arise when a product or process fails to live up to expectations.

Ultimately Smil’s book is about “inventions that were diligently sought, generally (and often enthusiastically) praised when they eventually arrived, rapidly commercialized, and embraced on a global scale,” only to eventually become “so undesirable or harmful both to humans and the environment that they came to be viewed with widespread suspicion, and subsequently banned outright for the uses for which they were originally invented.”

His mind immediately springs to leaded petrol that smoothed the running of the internal combustion engine, but which emitted a neurotoxic heavy metal in such quantity that the phasing out of a revolutionary technology became a matter of international governmental priority. Supersonic flight briefly put in an appearance and then faded into the distance.

Then there are classic examples of products that were supposed to plug gaps as wide as chasms and yet failed to live up to the hype. The airship never fulfilled its promise to deliver cheap long-haul transportation, while nuclear fission missed its ambitions on a grand scale. Then there are the ideas that have been trumpeted loud and long for which we still await the arrival. We’ve known about the technology underlying Hyperloop for two centuries. There is the promise of nitrogen-fixing cereals and controlled nuclear fusion. Which might all sound a bit depressing until we remember, as Smil reminds, us that without our past successes, “modern societies could not have achieved their high quality of life.”

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles