Dude, Where’s My Flying Car?

REVIEW: ‘Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure’

"A Futuristic Vision", colored etching by William Heath, 1829. (Wellcome Collection)
June 18, 2023

On December 13, 2022, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced a breakthrough in fusion energy—an achievement that came "after more than 60 years of global research, development, engineering, and experimentation," according to the National Nuclear Security Administration.

A good part of the nation’s press went wild over the news. Livermore’s own publicity department called the new fusion reactor "a shot for the ages." Wired magazine declared, "It’s Time to Fall in Love With Nuclear Fusion—Again," while ABC explained, "Scientific ‘breakthrough’ in nuclear fusion could launch new era of clean energy." As it happens, even on the most optimistic of timetables, we’re still 20 years away from commercial reactors, but that didn’t stop the nation’s press from proclaiming the arrival of the new fusion age.

Such hype about engineering breakthroughs is hardly unique. And much of that hype is premised on the idea that advancement, any kind of scientific change, is likely to change the world. Unfortunately, many technological breakthroughs are just that: breakthroughs, a step beyond what had previously been done, without much purpose beyond breaking through. The pursuit of technology for the sake of advancement rather than for human flourishing is folly.

As Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure reminds us, the history of science is filled with broken promises and unfulfilled hopes. By providing an account of the real history of science, Vaclav Smil, a much-published environmental professor at the University of Manitoba, wants to tamp down our inflated optimism about new technology. (He only mentions A.I. in passing—the book came out just as ChatGPT was making headlines.)

People who fawn over technology—you can’t scatter birdseed on a Silicon Valley sidewalk without attracting the attention of a dozen of them, and hundreds more are perched in academia—have the view that some inventions (often their own) will save the world. In his 2021 book, The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat called this the "spiritualized reaction" to technological breakthroughs, as though salvation itself were on offer.

With his nine case studies in Invention and Innovation, Smil tracks such hyped inventions, especially ones that either failed to deliver on their promise or produced bad consequences the inventors had not foreseen. What he wants us to recognize is the silliness of hyped claims of technological breakthroughs. Think, for example, of CFCs, the refrigerants developed in the 1920s as a safer alternative to propane and ammonia. By 1952 CFCs were used in 90 percent of America’s air conditioners. The CFC known as Freon provided a low-cost solution to cooling buildings and refrigerating foods, incalculably improving the quality of life.

Unfortunately, CFCs were also terrible for the ozone layer. Had they been used only for cooling, the effects might not have been so bad, but after they started showing up in aerosol cans, from hair spray to deodorants, they were essentially banned in 1987. And so CFCs gave way to HCFCs, and HCFCs to HFCs. Smil observes that all "of this seems to amount to a continuing, and accelerating, sequence of, if not failures, then repeatedly imperfect solutions."

Smil similarly traces the rise and fall of leaded gasoline and DDT: breakthroughs with histories parallel to that of CFCs. We started out enthusiastic, but the unforeseen consequences of widespread use soon left us sour. He then gives three case studies of much-touted breakthroughs that simply failed to capture the market: blimps and hydrogen airships, for example, along with nuclear fission and supersonic flight. And his case studies conclude with three much-hyped breakthroughs that somehow never actually arrived: the always almost here of trains whisked along vacuum tubes, for example, along with the promise of nitrogen-fixing cereals and our own fascination with fusion, as the media frenzy about Lawrence Livermore proves.

As an antidote to irrational enthusiasm about technological change, Invention and Innovation is worth the read. Not so much the conclusions Smil draws from them. The book is so determined to find failed hype that it can’t quite see much good technology. At nearly every point, Smil overstates his case, not seeming to realize that a progression from bad to less bad, even if it doesn’t reach the perfect, is historically natural and marks genuine progress.

Smil reprints, as both the book’s cover and an interior illustration, William Heath’s 1829 etching, "A Futuristic Vision."  It’s a lovely, goofy example of the anti-progress genre. In the middle of the etching, for example, is the "Grand Vacuum Tube Company Direct to Bengal," loading passengers into an intricate metallic vacuum transport for a menial trip across the river: an innovation without much purpose. Surrounding the tube are detailed sketches of absurdly unchecked and unguided innovations. The state of civic life does not fare much better. A noose atop an office building is labeled "Designed to elevate the architects." A castle in the clouds is the "Scheme for the Payment of the National Debt."

Heath’s etching mocks the idea of technological progress, and Smil is right to use it to illustrate his skepticism. The problem is that nuclear fusion, say, could not find a place in Heath’s catalog of absurdities and horrors. Though fusion may be far-fetched, it is not without merit. Renewed interest in the energy source comes in spurts, in reaction to threats of national and energy security from such foreign actions as Russia’s war on Ukraine, which threatened natural-gas supplies to much of Europe. It also gives future scientists and engineers something to be excited about. Can hype be good, after all?

At the end of the book, Smil offers a few suggestions for what he believes would be worthwhile. Inventions, he thinks, should improve the human condition, with minimal, long-lasting impact on the environment. We should focus on fundamentals for human life before reaching for supersonic speeds.

Such suggestions are all rather abstract. They are not live wires, capable of carrying enough current to power technological progress. The Stone Age, he thinks, was about survival. The Agricultural Age allowed the building of societies. The Industrial Age was aimed at raising the quality of life. The Technological Age of the 20th century was about mastering the world. So what aim should we have now in our decadent Digital Age?

Smil evaluates new innovations not by what tasks they accomplish but on what they do or don’t do to reduce emissions and the depletion of the earth’s resources. Seeking innovations that do more with less—that help us "dematerialize" (a term from his 2013 work, Making the Modern World: Materials & Dematerialization)—Smil leaves us with a waning progress in human flourishing.

Invention and Innovation is a useful commentary on the shortcomings of inventions and innovations. Smil explains how each of his examples was invented and commercialized, and how they later turned disastrous or failed to meet expectations. His skepticism about the hype around breakthroughs is exact, correct, and devastating.

Still, such lofty projects as supersonic flight and commercial space travel are more likely to inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists than desalination projects. Perhaps it is just hype, but that hype can still get students into a discipline short on labor. Hype, it turns out, is actually good. Sometimes.

Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure
by Vaclav Smil
MIT Press, 232 pp., $24.95

Matthew Phillips is a doctoral student in aerospace engineering at North Carolina State University.