Sci-Tech

What made the last century’s great innovations possible?

York with San Francisco. Electric power and radio broadcasts came into homes. New methods for making synthetic fertilizer portended a revolution in agriculture. And on the horizon, airplanes promised a radical transformation in travel and commerce.

As the technology historian Thomas P. Hughes noted: “The remarkably prolific inventors of the late nineteenth century, such as [Thomas] Edison, persuaded us that we were involved in a second creation of the world.” By the 1920s, this world — more functional, more sophisticated and increasingly more comfortable — had come into being.

Public figures like Edison or, say, Henry Ford were often described as inventors. But a different word, one that caught on around the 1950s, seemed more apt in describing the technological ideas making way for modern life: innovation. While its origins go back some 500 years (at first it was used to describe a new legal and then religious idea), the word’s popularization was a post–World War II phenomenon

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