History of technology

From Academic Kids

This article is about the topic of technology in history. For the publication, see History of Technology.

The history of technology is intertwined with the culture of its civilization; power, wealth, hope, health, conquests, and concepts. Frequently, these factors are implicitly expressed, although they inform the developments of that culture. When there is no hope for further increase, that culture may well seek other avenues of expression. But if some advantage is available to them, the peoples and cultures of the globe have sought it, sometimes for ill-understood reasons:

Any technology which is sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.
Missing image
Columbus' Santa Maria, by Eertvelt

Other motivations can be more easily divined -- the search for fame and fortune. Thus Francis Bacon's New Atlantis could recognize discoverers and innovators:

  • Columbus, that discovered the West Indies, also
  • the inventor of ships,
  • your monk that was the inventor of ordnance and of gunpowder,
  • the inventor of music,
  • the inventor of letters,
  • the inventor of printing,
  • the inventor of observations of astronomy,
  • the inventor of works in metal,
  • the inventor of glass,
  • the inventor of silk of the worm,
  • the inventor of wine,
  • the inventor of corn and bread,
  • the inventor of sugars;
    • and all these by more certain tradition than you have. Then we have divers inventors of our own, of excellent works; which, since you have not seen) it were too long to make descriptions of them; and besides, in the right understanding of those descriptions you might easily err. For upon every invention of value we erect a statue to the inventor, and give him a liberal and honorable reward.



Early technology

Prehistoric times

Missing image
Ancient stone tools

Although, by definition, no writing records were made in prehistoric time, we can get some insight as to how the world, and its mechanisms, was understood or interpreted by prehistoric man by direct and indirect evidence. Direct evidence includes cave paintings that were found in Spain and France, and some other artistic works, for example the Venus of Willendorf. Other direct evidence are bones (for example trepanation), mummies and ancient tools[1] (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/01/0114_040114_siberianhumans.html). Despite the relative lack of direct evidence of knowledge owned by prehistoric man, the surviving technologies of prehistory may also be used to conject as to the understanding of the world in that era.

Survival was the first order of business; even today, with the great tsunami of 2004, Andaman Islanders remembered the advice of their forebears, took to the high ground, and survived the tsunami, as their ancestors have since time immemorial. These peoples recounted this knowledge to the crews of the rescue aircraft who were hovering over the Andaman Islands, after the aircraft were attacked by their arrows.

Although there is no written record of technological innovation for some peoples or cultures, there is some evidence for their achievements in exploration: for example, the Malay people spread across the Malay archipelago, across the Indian ocean to Madagascar and also across the Pacific ocean, which required knowledge of the ocean currents, the winds, sailing, the movement of the stars, celestial navigation, and star maps. The star maps were not made of paper, but were lashed together with strings, sticks and shells. Their outrigger ships were ocean-worthy, thousands of years ago, well before the maritime technology of the West was capable of the age of exploration.

Before them, likely by hunting and gathering, the Australian aborigines and the Native Americans followed the contours of the continents to populate their parts of the world - a journey of tens of thousands of kilometers, and which may have taken thousands of years.

Ancient Egypt

The Egyptians invented and used many simple machines, such as the ramp and the lever, to aid their construction processes. The wheel, however, did not arrive until foreign invaders introduced the chariot.

Tribal Europe

By 1000 BC - 500 BC the Germanic tribes had a bronze age civilization, while the Celts were in the iron age by the time of the Hallstatt culture. Their cultures next collided with the military and agricultural practices of the Romans, two millennia ago. But the time and resources which are needed to conduct science had to build up gradually.

Ancient Rome

Main article: Ancient Roman technology


Ancient India

The Indus Valley Civilization situated suitably, with a lot of resources, was a lesson in city planning and sanitation. One of the first examples of closed 'gutters', public baths, granaries etc. are seen here.

A panel found at Mohenjodaro, depicting a sailing craft. Vessels were of many types. Their construction is vividly described in the Yukti Kalpa Taru, an ancient Indian text on Ship-building.

The Nalanda University was an important seat of learning in the ancient world. It was the center of education for scholars from all over Asia. Many Greek, Persian and Chinese students studied here under great scholars - Kautilya, Panini, Jivaka, Vishnu Sharma.

Indian construction and architecture called as 'Vaastu Shastra' offered details and plans based on scientific principles like Strength of Materials, ideal height of construction, presence of adequate sources of water, light hence preserving hygiene. It is one of the first building science to be so all-inclusive.

The Yukti Kalpa Taru, compiled by Bhoja Narapati is concerned with ship-building. (The Yukti Kalpa Taru (YKT) had been translated and published by Prof. Aufrecht in his 'Catalogue of Sanskrit Manuscripts').

Ancient Indian culture has always been diverse in its choice of spices, condiments and ornamental items, hence India was the origin of palm and coconut oil, indigo and other vegetable dyes and pigments like cinnabar. Many of the dyes were used in art and sculpture. The use of perfumes demonstrates some knowledge of the application of technologies used in chemistry, particularly in distillation and purification processes.

Ancient China

Major technological contributions from China include early seismological detectors, paper, the iron plough, the suspension bridge, natural gas as fuel, the magnetic compass, gunpowder and rocket technology.

Medieval China

Missing image

The solid-fuel rocket was invented in China about 1150, about 200 years after the invention of gunpowder (which was its main fuel) and 500 years after the invention of the match. At the same time that the age of exploration was occurring in the West, the Chinese emperors of the Ming Dynasty also sent ships, some reaching Africa. But the enterprises were not further funded, halting further exploration and development. When Magellan's ships reached Brunei in 1521, they found a wealthy city that had been fortified by Chinese engineers, protected by a breakwater. Antonio Pigafetta noted that much of the technology of Brunei was equal to Western technology of the time. Also, there were more cannons in Brunei than on Magellan's ships, and the Chinese merchants to the Brunei court had sold them spectacles and porcelain, which were rarities in Europe. The scientific base for these technological developments appears to be quite thin, however. For example, the concept of force was not clearly formulated in Chinese texts of the period.


The engineering skills of the Inca were great, even by today's standards. An example is the use of pieces weighing in upwards of one ton in their stonework (e.g., Machu Picchu in Peru), placed together so that not even a blade can fit in-between the cracks. The villages used irrigation canals and drainage systems, making agriculture very efficient.


The Maya civilization did not smelt metals or use the wheel; they possessed a system of writing and amazing fluency with flint-knapping including portraiture in flint.


The fall of the Roman Empire slowed, but did not stop innovation; the Romans used oils for bathing, but soap was brought by the tribes seeking to enter the protections of the Empire. By the fall of Rome, the armor which we associate with the Medieval Knight was in use by the heavy cavalry of Rome, and for over a thousand years afterward.


See: Medieval technology


At first, timekeeping was done by hand, by priests, and then for commerce, with watchmen to note time, as part of their duties. The tabulation of the equinoxes, the sandglass, and the water clock became more and more accurate, and finally reliable.

For ships at sea, boys were used to turn the sandglasses, and to call the hours.

The use of the pendulum, ratchets and gears allowed the towns of Europe to create mechanisms to display the time on their respective town clocks; by the time of the scientific revolution, the clocks became miniaturized enough for families to share a personal clock, or perhaps a pocket watch. At first, only kings could afford them.

Age of Exploration

The sailing ship (Nau or Carrack) enabled the Age of Exploration with the European colonization of the Americas, epitomized by Francis Bacon's New Atlantis.

Agricultural Revolution

The British Agricultural Revolution.

Industrial Revolution

The British Industrial Revolution is characterised by developments in the areas of textile manufacturing, metallurgy and transport driven by the development of the steam engine.

19th century

Steam-powered transportation by railway, pioneered notably by Richard Trevithick. The Portsmouth Block Mills was where manufacture of ships' pulley blocks by all-metal machines first took place and instigated the age of mass production. Machine tools used by enginers to manufature other machines began in the first decade of the century, notably by Richard Roberts and Joseph Whitworth. Steamships were eventually completely iron-clad, and played a role in the opening of Japan and China to trade with the West. Mechanical computing was envisioned by Charles Babbage but did not come to fruition.

20th century

The kingdom retained its eminence in radio, and discovered the possibilities in radar. It is possible that electronic computing would have developed as rapidly without the wars of the twentieth century, but nuclear power, developed after the Manhattan project, has fallen into disrepute.

There was some work in transport by rocketry, but most work occurred in the US (Goddard), Russia (Tsiolkovsky) and Germany (Oberth).

Some work in recombinant DNA.

High Technology

Like Big Science, High Technology is a global phenomenon, spanning continents, epitomized by the global communication of the Internet. Thus a multinational corporation might work on a project 24 hours a day, with teams waking and working with the advance of the sun across the globe; such projects might be in software development or in the development of an integrated circuit. The help desks of a multinational corporation might thus employ, successively, teams in Kenya, Brazil, the Philippines, or India, with the only requirement fluency in the mother tongue, be it Spanish, Portuguese or English.

See also


  • Singer, C., Holmyard, E.J., Hall, A. R and Williams, T. I. (eds.), (1954-59 and 1978) A History of Technology,<cite>, 7 vols., Oxford, Clarendon Press,. (Vols 6 and 7, 1978, ed. T. I. Williams)
  • Kranzberg, Melvin and Pursell, Carroll W. Jr., eds. (1967)<cite>Technology in Western Civilization: Technology in the Twentieth Century<cite> New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Pacey, Arnold, (1974, 2ed 1994),<cite>The Maze of Ingenuity<cite> The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1974, [2ed 1994, cited here]
  • Derry, Thomas Kingston and Williams, Trevor I., (1993) <cite>A Short History of Technology : From the Earliest Times to A.D. 1900. New York: Dover Publications.
  • Brush, S. G. (1988). The History of Modern Science: A Guide to the Second Scientific Revolution 1800-1950. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
  • Bunch, Bryan and Hellemans,Alexander, (1993) The Timetables of Technology,<cite> New York, Simon and Schuster.
  • Olby, R. C. et. al., eds. (1996). <cite>Companion to the History of Modern Science,<cite>. New York, Routledge.

External links

  • MIT 6.933J - The Structure of Engineering Revolutions (http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Electrical-Engineering-and-Computer-Science/6-933JThe-Structure-of-Engineering-RevolutionsFall2001/CourseHome/index.htm). From MIT OpenCourseWare, course materials (graduate level) for a course on the history of technology through a Thomas Kuhn-ian lens.

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