From the New York Times-bestselling author, a new volume on the history of human ingenuity—and its attendant breakthroughs and busts.
The world is never finished catching up with Vaclav Smil. In his latest and perhaps most readable book, Invention and Innovation, the prolific author—a favorite of Bill Gates—pens an insightful and fact-filled jaunt through the history of human invention. Impatient with the hype that so often accompanies innovation, Smil offers in this book a clear-eyed corrective to the overpromises that accompany everything from new cures for diseases to AI. He reminds us that even after we go quite far along the invention-development-application trajectory, we may never get anything real to deploy. Or worse, even after we have succeeded by introducing an invention, its future may be marked by underperformance, disappointment, demise, or outright harm.
Drawing on his vast breadth of scientific and historical knowledge, Smil explains the difference between invention and innovation. He then looks at three different types of inventions.
Inventions that failed to dominate as promised:
- Nuclear fission
- Supersonic flight
Inventions that turned disastrous:
- Leaded gasoline
Inventions we have long been promised (and that would be highly beneficial):
- Travel in vacuum (hyperloop)
- Nitrogen-fixing cereals
- Nuclear fusion
Finally, he offers a “wish list” of inventions that we most urgently need to confront the staggering challenges of the twenty-first century.
Filled with engaging examples and pragmatic approaches, this book is a sobering account of the folly that so often attends human ingenuity—and how we can, and must, better align our expectations with reality.
About the author
Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of forty books, including Power Density: A Key to Understanding Energy Sources and Uses and Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing, both published by the MIT Press. In 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers. In 2013 Bill Gates wrote on his website that “there is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil.”
"Smil, the author of more than 40 books on scientific subjects and global matters, is always worth reading...An informative, entertaining package from a gifted, original thinker."
"Smil (How the World Really Works), a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, takes a thought-provoking look at what “the long trajectory of inventions” suggests about what to expect in the future...This is a solid corrective to the notion that human inventiveness can tackle any challenge."
Other titles by Vaclav Smil
How the World Really Works
The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We're Going
How the Modern World Was Made
From Microorganisms to Megacities
Energy and Civilization
A Beginner's Guide
A Key to Understanding Energy Sources and Uses
Harvesting the Biosphere
What We Have Taken from Nature
Made in the USA
The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing
Prime Movers of Globalization
The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines