Book Summary: “Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism 1850-1940” by Daniel R. Headrick

Title: Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism 1850-1940
Author: Daniel R. Headrick
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 4.5 stars
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Topic of Book

The diffusion of Western technology from Europe to it colonial territories and the impact of that diffusion of both societies.

Key Take-aways

  • European colonialism exported Western technologies, skills, social organizations and values to the rest of the world.
  • Colonial administrator often tied to monopolize Western technology and skills to ensure that the locals could not use them to disrupt the imperial order.
  • Many attempts by non-Western countries to rapidly modernize before 1940 failed, most likely because they lacked critical skills to make and use Western technologies.
  • These failed modernizers often tried to copy Western military technologies while insolating themselves from Western knowledge and attitudes.
  • Technologies can only diffuse as fast as skills can also diffuse.
  • Transportation, mineral extraction and agricultural technologies generally had the biggest impact on the colonies.
  • Dominant powers often have a strong vested interest in not allowing technologies to diffuse to other societies.

Other books by the same author:

Important Quotes from Book

Until the nineteenth century relations between Europe, on the one hand, and Asia and Africa, on the other, were determined by their technological balance.

The transfer of technology is not one process but two. One of these is the relocation, from one area to another, of equipment and methods, along with the experts to operate them. The other is the diffusion from one society to another of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes related to a particular device or process.

The machines and processes of the first industrial revolution were simple enough that craftsmen with preindustrial skills could understand, copy, and improve them. Hence these technologies spread easily from Britain to other Western countries, sometimes in the minds of emigrant workers. By the late nineteenth century, however, industrial technology was no longer within the reach of craftsmen, but required a knowledge of engineering and science. Illiteracy now obstructed the transfer of technology.

Transportation technologies are by nature the easiest to connect to their point of origin; hence they are among the first to penetrate new environments.

The attitude of a government or ruling elite will depend on its nature and on how it views the potential impact of the new technology. Its reaction will be conditioned by its assessment of risks and benefits in four areas: its domestic power, prestige, and security; its international position; the impact on the population at large; and the personal wealth and comfort that members of the ruling elite expect to enjoy from the new technology.

Attempts at selective modernization have led more than one regime to its downfall, from nineteenth-century Egypt and the Manchu dynasty of China to the Shah of Iran. Reconciling conflicting goals is especially difficult for conservative regimes, which often fall back on the most limited range of technology transfers: buying modern weapons for their armed forces and allowing foreigners to extract their mineral wealth to pay for those weapons.

The cultural diffusion of technology, in contrast, is a much more difficult task. It takes a willingness to accept changes, a strong political cohesiveness, and a common vision of the future. Western societies, facing less culture shock, have readily imported industrial technologies. Among non-Western societies, only Japan had the requisite cultural and social base. Others have had to undergo political revolutions first.

Western technology did not reach the tropics in a continuous stream, but in the form of discrete projects: a railway, a plantation, a telegraph network.

The argument of this book lies in the contrast between the successful relocation of European technologies under colonialism and the delays and failures in spreading the corresponding culture. The cause of this contrast was the unequal relationship between the tropical colonies and their European metropoles. In order to obtain the full benefit of Western technology through its cultural diffusion, Africans and Asians had first to free themselves from colonial rule and then—a more arduous task—learn to understand, and not just desire, the alien machinery.

Ships and Shipping:

Four innovations in the 1850s and 1860s lowered costs and improved the competitive position of steamers vis-a-vis sailing ships: the screw-propeller, the iron hull, the surface condenser, and the compound engine.

In the new age of steamships, what dictated the importance of a port was trade and not, as in previous centuries, the existence of a natural harbor. Iron, steel, steam power, and concrete made it possible for engineers to build large artificial harbors on practically any coast, although the cost was high.

Since the industrial revolution, technological changes have tended toward increasing complexity, both mechanical and organizational. Once a new machine or process is invented, further improvements or adaptations usually involve more parts and more connections to other devices. A more complex machine or process, in turn, costs more, both initially and in use. Complex machines and processes also need specialized inputs—technicians, raw materials, energy, spare parts—and are thus more dependent on outside organizations. Finally, technical innovations are subject to the pressures of obsolescence, for the economic lifespan of machines and processes is often shorter than their physical life.

To justify their cost, steamers required speed, tight scheduling, and well-organized procedures for loading, unloading, refueling, and maintenance. These in turn required both appropriate infrastructures and large, aggressive, efficient business organizations.


The railway era lasted about a century. The first three decades, from 1830 to 1860, were a time of experimentation and rapid growth in Britain, western Europe, and the eastern United States. From 1860 to 1914, the web of steel spread throughout the world, and so did the political, financial, and engineering techniques that had evolved along with it in its early years.

The impact of railways was felt, by a ripple effect, throughout the society. Their enormous fixed costs and long gestation period required more ready capital than had ever been assembled before. The development of banks and capital markets were a necessary complement to the railways, as was the willingness of savers to invest their funds in speculative enterprises or to lend them to governments. Furthermore, railways needed land in unprecedented amounts and in specific locations. In every country, even liberal Britain, they needed the government’s power of eminent domain, and they frequently obtained land free, or at low cost. To build and operate railways demanded engineers and workers with a variety of new skills; this led to apprenticeship programs and technical education on a scale that resembled the raising of armies in wartime. Railways also needed equipment and fuel, both of which in turn demanded an industrial base.

Thus at every step we run into the indirect effects of railways on parts of society that are neither their suppliers nor their customers. Banking, education, government, commerce, travel, industry: almost every aspect of society was transformed by the touch of railways.

However, the countries in which railways were built were not isolated. Only the land on which they were built, and the transportation they provided, were specific to a particular location; all the other inputs were mobile.

It is because so many of the factors of production and external benefits of railways are not location-specific that colonial railways are excellent examples of the pitfalls of technology transfer.

The railways opened the Indian economy to international trade and increased all categories of production. Yet, at Independence, the same proportion of the Indian people worked in agriculture, trade, industry, and services as a century before. In the end, the railways had a far smaller impact on the economy of India than any other network of comparable dimensions had in any other country.

Cities, Sanitation and Segregation:

The period we are studying was the greatest era of city building the Western world had ever experienced… The modernization of colonial cities was therefore a transfer to the tropics of Western aesthetics as well as technology and economics.

One of the less heralded achievements of industrialization was to lower the cost of cleanliness through technological innovations: mass-produced cottons and soap; metal pipes, boilers, and valves; and porcelain sinks, tubs, and flush toilets appeared in middle-class homes by the midcentury. And they all required fresh water and sewerage to remove the wastes. Middle-class European or American city dwellers could now, in the comfort of their own homes, be as clean as the ancient Romans or medieval Arabs.

“The principal reason why India developed more slowly than almost any other country was simply lack of water…  In the long run [in India], that is to say by Independence, irrigation works proved to have been a better investment of government funds than railways.

The army officers who came from Britain in the early years brought with them little knowledge other than the rudiments of mathematics and design and a willingness to experiment. The fundamentals of hydraulic science and the practices of irrigation engineering came out of the great irrigation works of India itself. For India was a laboratory of hydraulic engineering and a school from which this knowledge spread to other lands.

Irrigation is unusual among imperial technologies in that it developed in a colonial setting and was transferred from colony to colony by the colonizers…

British engineers had not only given the Indus Basin the most extensive irrigation system in the world; they had developed most of the formulas now used everywhere in canal construction and operation.”

Botany and Tropical Plantations:

In the colonial era, two types of tropical agriculture offered the possibility of increasing the supply of crops for the world market: peasant agriculture and plantations…

In several European colonies—Senegal, Nigeria, Gold Coast, most of India—colonial administrators were hostile to plantations and leaned toward the “yeoman” ideal of agriculture.

In the rest of the tropical colonies, the European administrators looked to planters and agronomists to develop the export crops.

But most modern plantations were established on fertile, well-watered, but vacant lands, such as existed in Ceylon, Malaya, Sumatra, Assam, and Indochina. Here the agricultural entrepreneur could bring together technology and capital from the West and workers from the East and create an outdoor factory for tropical crops.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, almost every domesticated plant had been spread to every other part of the globe where it could grow. But there remained the myriad wild plants which were both valuable and suitable for domestication. In the hopes of discovering new green El Dorados, governments willingly funded botanizing expeditions.

Scientist-adventurers fanned out through the tropics searching for cinchona, rubber, sisal, tea, coffee, and sugar cane plants.

In the age of plant transfers, the central institutions were the botanical gardens.

The first response was the simple transfer of plants by collectors and botanical gardens. Then came a phase of research and development at experiment stations which created better varieties through breeding and cloning, and later through hybridization. Technical advances also improved cultivation and processing. The result was to reduce traditional methods of agriculture or collection to a marginal role. The profits of a science-based agriculture could not long be reserved for its innovators, however. Techniques, whether cultural or embodied in seeds, spread swiftly across borders…

Western science, having improved tropical agriculture, was busy working to undermine what it had created. It almost succeeded with beet sugar in the nineteenth century and with synthetic rubber after 1940, and it has fully succeeded with chemical substitutes for quinine.

Mining and Metallurgy:

In the European empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there arose four major metals industries: South African gold, Malayan tin, Central African copper, and Indian iron and steel. The first of these helped turn South Africa into a settler colony and then into an independent nation.

In Malaya, the Chinese were newcomers like the Europeans, energetic, ingenious, and greedy. Though poorer and without an industrialized homeland to supply and support them, they succeeded in countering their Western rivals with innovations that were more appropriate to the geological and labor conditions of Malaya. As late as 1914 they produced three-quarters of the country’s tin, while Western firms accounted for only one-quarter.

Business organization was crucial because the new machines, especially the dredges, were so costly that only joint-stock companies could afford them.

The metals industries that arose were intrinsically part of the world economy and only accidentally part of the local ones; in other words, they were enclaves. In both cases, the technology transfer was foreign-driven, with indigenous peoples playing a very incidental role.

Technical Education:

European civilization has blurred the social distinctions between manual and intellectual work. It is in part the willingness of some Europeans (though by no means all) to combine manual and intellectual work which has stimulated the advance of Western technology.

The Western ideal of on-the-job training in these words: “Every technically trained student must be prepared to start on the lowest rung of the ladder, show his superiority by hard work and technical knowledge, and having made himself indispensable and a commercial asset to his employer, he will then rise by the natural laws of supply and demand.” Such a situation is most likely to exist in countries in which there is social mobility and where prevailing values do not inhibit the educated from doing some manual labor. Colonial India was not such a country. Members of the higher castes readily took to English legal and literary education because it was similar to the book learning that was highly prized in traditional Indian society. But they were averse to manual labor.

Surprisingly, Western technology came to nineteenth-century Egypt by diffusion first, and by relocation later. Mohammed Ali, ruler from 1805 to 1849, tried to make Egypt militarily strong and independent of the Ottoman Empire by emulating the Western powers, especially France. This in turn required a cadre of technicians and engineers. In the 1820s and 1830s, he opened a series of schools of mineralogy, munitions, applied chemistry, signaling, irrigation, agriculture, engineering, and translation. Most of these were ephemeral and had difficulty recruiting students, as Egyptian parents rightly feared that their sons, if educated, would only end up serving in the army.

As before, educated Egyptians considered technical fields inferior to the humanities and the law, and they aspired to government jobs. Their contribution was to replace some of the Europeans, rather than to diversify the Egyptian economy,

From the point of view of technical education, India is the most interesting of colonies. Colonized earlier than other territories, India went through its colonial evolution sooner. Higher education was established, industries were created, and nationalism appeared. Despite its vast population of illiterates, India probably had more educated people than all the other colonies put together.

A conflict had arisen between the needs of the Indian economy and that delicate balance of social classes that was the Raj. And at the heart of that conflict was the peculiar nature of modern technology which requires an engineer to be, at one and the same time, a gentleman and a worker.

A constant in the history of technical education in British India was the contrast between the government’s oft-repeated policy of educating Indians in Western science and technology and its hesitation in carrying it out.

In the period 1900-14, technical education was stalemated by conflicting ideas. Indian nationalists demanded more of it, believing it would stimulate, or at least facilitate, economic development. British employers refused to hire Indian graduates of technical schools because they were poorly prepared and averse to manual labor. The government, seeing the difficult job situation facing Indian graduates, resisted appeals to increase technical education on the grounds that more graduates, far from creating more jobs, would only end up unemployed.

The flood of Indian students abroad, which is so visible today, began in the late nineteenth century.

Among the arguments against investing in technical education, one of the most often used was the bias of middle- and upper-class Indians toward book learning, academic studies, and clerical careers. This argument was strengthened by contrasting the number of students enrolled in the different schools.

In 1939, 82.5% of University students had Arts major, while only 1.9% had Engineering major.

Experts and Enterprises:

India, West Africa, the Arab world, and Southeast Asia teemed with eager traders and purveyors of myriad goods and services. Many of them had the entrepreneurial qualities of business acumen and willingness to take risks, and some even had access to venture capital. Whole communities like the Marwaris, Chettiars, and Armenians were known for their entrepreneurial culture.

But entrepreneurship alone does not lead to economic development. The kinds of enterprises that could have led the colonies toward economic development required other elements that were in short supply in the colonial world. To create modern industries and businesses, entrepreneurs also needed information about foreign machines, technical processes, and business practices, information which was not forthcoming from the educational system. In other words, they had to be importers or creators of technological culture.

Only in rare instances did Asians and Africans enter occupations where they competed with Europeans on their own ground.

It is rather in the realm of agriculture that one finds real competition between European-owned plantations and Asian or African small holders.

Even when they successfully competed with European enterprises, small-scale miners and agriculturalists were marginally involved in the transfer of Western technology. More often, they adapted a traditional technology like tree farming or irrigation to a new situation, or developed their own devices and techniques with local resources.

The most successful enterprises that arose in the colonies did so not by creating alternative technologies, but by acquiring the technologies of the West.

Two sorts of Asians and Africans acquired Western technical culture: the experts through their education and experience, and the entrepreneurs by purchasing the expertise they needed.

It was not impossible for an Indian to achieve great prominence in a modern technical profession, but it was extraordinarily rare, and it could only happen outside the normal career path.

The Indian cotton industry has attracted more attention than any other, and for good reason. It was the first Western-style industry on the subcontinent; it was developed mostly by Indian entrepreneurs; it competed successfully, without tariff protection, with the powerful cotton industry of Lancashire; and it managed to adapt Western methods to Indian labor conditions.

While the American cotton industry was created by skilled immigrants, the Indian industry was built by Indian entrepreneurs who imported English machinery and hired English expatriate technicians.

In contrast to the railways, the jute industry, and even the cotton industry, the Indianization of the steel industry stands as a model of a successful technology transfer. In less than three decades an industry based on foreign expertise replaced its foreign technicians with Indians, and profitably.

It is sometimes asserted that underdeveloped countries have an abundance of unskilled labor. For the steel industry, this was a fallacy. Workers strong and fast enough to do steel mill work were hard to find, and they had high rates of turnover and absenteeism because of their residual attachment to seasonal agricultural work and their observance of religious holidays. The result was that TISCO’s labor force was unproductive, and labor costs per unit of output were higher than in the West.

The Indianization of the technical and supervisory staff presented a more difficult problem, for such jobs involved skills that could only be acquired by deliberate schooling, not on the shop floor. The company went about this in two ways. The first method was to send key employees abroad and to hire foreign-trained Indians. This process began during World War I when several manages went to Japan…

But such a program was clearly too expensive for any but the top personnel. What was needed, the company realized, was a technical institute in Jamshedpur itself.

Technology Transfer:

In many parts of the European empires, the transfers were massive and had penetrated deeply even before 1914. Botanical research transformed the economies of Southeast Asia. Barrages and canals quadrupled the agricultural output of Egypt and large tracts of India. Mines brought the outside world into central Africa. Railways crisscrossed the Indian subcontinent, permitting millions of people to travel. Harbors, shipping lines, and the telegraph linked the tropical lands to the rest of the world. And at the nodal points of transport and communications, towns grew into great cities. Enough was achieved to justify the imperialists’ claim that in just a few decades their work had overshadowed the monuments of past empires.

The Europeans who ruled the colonies were in an ambiguous position. On the one hand they represented a conquering civilization which obtained its power from ingenious innovations, and they certainly shared the Western love of new devices and the urge to proselytize their technomania among the “backward races” of the world. On the other hand, they were conservatives at heart who hoped to shield the societies they ruled from the dangerously disruptive social forces that came with exposure to the world market and to Western ideas.

Europeans in the colonies were especially enthusiastic about the new means of transportation and communication, and they frequently joined interests in Europe in lobbying for these innovations. Railways, ships, and telegraphs served their needs as administrators and increased the prosperity of their country and the treasury.

Similarly, colonial officials supported the construction of European- style housing and official buildings in the colonial cities, and sometimes they built entirely new cities like Dakar and New Delhi that reflected their sense of power and prestige. The new colonial cities and neighborhoods incorporated Western technologies as well as Western styles: water supply and sewerage systems, electricity, streetcars, hospitals, railways, telephones, paved roads, and other amenities

Those technology transfers which increased the production of tropical products and their export to the West received official blessing and administrative support from colonial officials.

Some technologies served mainly the interests of the native populations: public health services, famine railways and irrigation systems, and municipal services in the native quarters, to name a few. These received official blessing, but only within the narrow

limitations of tightfisted colonial budgets.

Lastly, those technology transfers which might have led to the growth of import-substitution industries were generally viewed with suspicion. Not only would they have competed with European manufactures, but they threatened to bring forth native industrialists, engineers, technicians, and factory workers who would have challenged the authority of the colonial regimes. Many colonial officials were from the English gentry and the French petite bourgeoisie, which had lost ground to industrialists and workers. They had gone to the colonies to become enlightened aristocrats… They did not yearn to preside over another industrial revolution.

Not only were colonial officials inclined toward some technological systems and away from others, they also favored the geographic relocation of technology over its cultural diffusion. Every time a new process or piece of equipment was introduced into a colony, it came with European experts to set it up and to operate it, and sometimes to pass their jobs on to their sons.

The reason the tropics experienced growth but little development under colonial rule is that investments went into physical not human capital, and that the transfer of technology was more geographic than cultural.

If you would like to learn more about technology in history read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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