Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure (Hardcover)
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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 Energy and Civilization and Growth, 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."
Included in Lit Hub’s Most Anticipated Books of 2023
Included in The Next Big Idea Club’s February 2023 Must-Read Books
"In what is essentially a history of invention (and therefore, in many ways, a history of civilization) Smil reminds us that human beings tend to fail a lot more than they succeed. And yet we are forever striving after better ways to do things, straining toward some perfectible society that no single generation will ever reach. Though Smil warns against our seemingly innate compulsion to overpromise, he also celebrates our capacity for collective innovation, and recognizes we’re going to need a lot of good ideas to get us out of the 21st century."
"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."
"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."
—E&T, Engineering & Technology
"As an environmentalist and energy writer, Vaclav Smil is well placed to analyse the impact of past and promised inventions and innovations. He distinguishes between these concepts: innovation, he says, involves “mastering new materials, products, processes and ideas”. He focuses engagingly on three types of “failed” invention: welcomed but then unwelcome (for example, leaded petrol and the pesticide DDT); over-hyped (such as nuclear fission and supersonic flight); and undelivered (including travel by vacuum tube and controlled nuclear fusion)."