Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure
From the New York Times-bestselling author, a new volume on the history of human ingenuity—and its attendant breakthroughs and busts.
Included in BILL GATES's 2023 Holiday Reading List Included in Lit Hub’s Most Anticipated Books of 2023 Included in The Next Big Idea Club’s February 2023 Must-Read Books "Every Smil book that I own is marked up with lots of notes that I take while reading. Invention and Innovation is no exception. Even when I disagree with him, I learn a lot from him...he always strengthens my thinking." —Bill Gates, Gates Notes
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, and looks not only at inventions that failed to dominate as promised (such as the airship, nuclear fission, and supersonic flight), but also at those that turned disastrous (leaded gasoline, DDT, and chlorofluorocarbons). And finally, most importantly, 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.
Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of forty books, including New York Times bestseller How the World Really Works and Energy and Civilization, 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.