Which decade was the most inventive in human history? Think of postwar innovation in transport, communications, medicine and space exploration and you might plump for the 1950s or 1960s. Or does technology’s transformation of every facet of life mean we should look to the opening years of the 21st century?
Wrong, says Vaclav Smil. The decade that matters is the 1880s. In those ten years Edison’s first electricity generating stations opened and Benz began commercial production of motor vehicles. These innovations alone shaped the modern world like no other, but then the 1880s added the hydroelectric power station, the first electric street railway, Coca-Cola, the ballpoint pen, the electric lift, the steel-framed skyscraper, deodorants and the vending machine.