Book Summary: “Technology: A World History” by Daniel Headrick

Technology: A World History

Title: Technology: A World History
Author: Daniel R. Headrick
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Headrick provides the best quick overview of the entire history of technology. Given the scope over what he is trying to cover there is, not surprisingly, not much depth on each technology. His other books go into far more depth on specific technologies.

If you would like to learn more about the history of technology, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Other books by the same author:

Important Quotes from Book

Humans are not the only creatures that use tools; chimpanzees, vultures, sea otters, even insects will sometimes pick up a twig or a stone to get at food. Only humans, however, could not survive without tools, and only humans have in turn been shaped by the tools they use.

Australopithecines, Homo habilis, and Homo erectus had distinctive stone tools but barely changed them for hundreds of thousands even millions, of years. Similarly, the tools of archaic Homo sapiens and Neanderthals changed very slowly over tens of thousands of years.

Then, 70,000 years ago, an explosion of innovations began, not only in tools but also in aspects of life unknown to previous hominids: art, religion, and ocean navigation. Some anthropologists call this event the Big Bang.

The transition from planting a few seeds to supplement a diet of wild foods to depending largely on domesticated plants took 2,000 years or more.

Fertile land could support up to a hundred times more farmers than foragers. As their numbers increased, farmers migrated to areas inhabited by hunters and gatherers, whom they soon outnumbered and, in many places, replaced entirely. The cultures and ways of life of hunters and gatherers, which had lasted for millions of years, only survived in places too dry to farm, like the plains of North America and central Asia, or too humid, like the rain forest of equatorial Africa.

Unlike Neolithic villages where everyone helped provide food, in larger societies, some people performed tasks other than farming or herding. A few were full-time religious, political, or military leaders. Some were warriors, artisans, and merchants. And others were servants to the elites or upper classes. To feed them, the farmers, herdsmen, and fishermen had to produce more food than they themselves consumed. The key to the transformation from Neolithic villages to civilizations, therefore, was the methods used to produce a surplus of food to feed those who did not farm. New and more productive farming practices went hand in hand with a radically new organization of society.

The earliest development in East Asia was along the Yellow River. The land there was exceptionally fertile, composed of loess, windblown and waterborne silt that was soft enough to cultivate with digging sticks. On average, rainfall was adequate for agriculture, unlike the river valleys of Mesopotamia, the Nile, and the Indus, and farmers could plant dry-land crops such as millet and wheat.

The most spectacular water control system in the Americas, perhaps in the world, was that found in the Valley of Mexico.

Next to textiles, pottery was the most important craft of ancient times.

The inhabitants of these ancient civilizations were remarkably creative in many fields, but one technological artifact they were slow to develop was the wheel… Yet even when the people of early civilizations understood the principle of the wheel, they made little use of it.

Long after the wheel was known, it was much easier to transport goods over long distances in caravans of donkeys. The peoples of the Americas did not use wheeled vehicles at all because they had no domesticated animals large enough to pull them.

The iron to which Pliny refers—and another innovation, the domestication of horses—disrupted the old river valley civilizations of Eurasia. These civilizations had lasted for more than 1,000 years with only minor changes because their religious and political elites had little to gain and much to lose from innovations that could threaten their status. Yet they had no control over the rain-watered lands outside their borders. It is in these marginal areas that innovations appeared.

At first, iron and horses allowed people who possessed them to conquer or disrupt the older civilizations. Eventually, the nomadic warriors and the settled river-valley peoples merged to form new empires, vast areas with millions of inhabitants ruled by centralized governments. Such were the empires of Assyria, Persia, Rome, China, and India.

Iron transformed both war and peace. For a few centuries, it gave the Hittites an advantage over their enemies. When the Hittite Empire collapsed in 1200 bce, the technology spread to other Middle Eastern countries. The disruptions that followed hampered the imports of tin from Britain, thereby hastening the switch to iron.

Until then, Africa south of Ethiopia and northern Nigeria were sparsely occupied by hunter-gatherers. Copper was known but little used. It was iron that transformed the continent. The first Africans south of the Sahara to smelt iron were inhabitants of northern Nigeria and Cameroon who spoke languages of the Bantu family. The smelting of iron was done by men.

Using these new technologies and skills, Bantu-speaking agriculturalists migrated outward from their original homeland. By the end of the first millennium ce, the majority of the peoples in eastern, central, and southern Africa spoke Bantu languages. Displaced by the newcomers, foragers retreated into ever more remote forests and deserts, where a few still survive by hunting and gathering.

Despite the success of their empires, their technological underpinnings— iron and horses—could not be monopolized by states or civilizations. Instead, these technologies gave nomadic herdsmen and warriors the weapons to harass and sometimes defeat the civilized empires. The conflicts between settled empires and nomadic herdsmen are one of the themes of Eurasian history for more than 1,000 years.

From 1500 bce to 500 ce, four major regions of Eurasia—southern Europe, the Middle East, India, and China—were ruled by successions of empires, each one larger than its predecessor.

During the Han dynasty, Chinese crafts were the most highly developed in the world.

The age of the great Eurasian empires marked a radical departure from the more conservative river valley civilizations that preceded them. Before about 1500 bce, there had been a rough balance between the river valley civilizations and the Neolithic farmers and herdsmen who inhabited the surrounding regions. After ca. 1500 bce, however, three technological innovations—iron, domesticated horses, and wheeled vehicles—upset this equilibrium, leading to an era of prolonged warfare that spread over much of Eurasia and North Africa. The empires that emerged from these wars ruled far more people over much larger areas than had ever been possible before.

The productivity of the land depended mainly on the amount of labor that went into it. If carried out with care and diligence, wet-rice cultivation provided the highest yields—that is, the most food per acre—of any form of agriculture, one that could support the highest population densities in the world. In one part of Sichuan in central China, 5 million people farmed an area of 40 by 50 miles. The productivity per person, however, was very low, which meant that farmers worked very hard and earned very little.

Throughout the Song domains, there was an upsurge in craft production and a growth in the market economy. The population of China doubled. By 1080, twice as many Chinese lived in the south as in the north of the country, many of them in large cities such as Hangzhou.

[Medieval agriculture in North west Europe] What resulted was a complicated agricultural system integrating animals and plants, with many activities spread throughout the year. It transformed rural life, as farmers no longer had to live in isolated hamlets near their fields but could live in larger villages with a church, a blacksmith’s shop, and a tavern and still get to their fields in the same amount of time. The surpluses that the new agriculture produced led to a revival of trade. As the population increased, villages turned into towns, and towns became cities; by 1300, Paris had 228,000 inhabitants.

With the end of the Han dynasty in 220 ce and the fall of the western Roman Empire in 476, warfare became endemic throughout Eurasia. New weapons and ways of fighting gave decisive advantages to innovators but never for long. Unlike agricultural techniques, which are specific to particular environments, military technology diffuses rapidly from one people to another, as warriors imitate their enemies.

In China, spinning and weaving were widespread because taxes were paid in kind: each peasant household owed the government two bolts of plain cloth and two bushels of grain a year.

The North Arabian saddle, invented sometime after 500 bce, rested on the shoulders and haunches of the animal, straddling its hump, and allowed it to carry a load of up to 300 pounds. From this position, a rider could wield a sword or spear and control the animal’s movement with his feet. Thus mounted, the desert tribes of Arabia became very powerful. They could control and tax the merchants’ caravans that crossed the desert and attack towns and farmlands beyond the desert. Camels contributed to the Arabs’ rise to military and economic power. As their power grew, so did the use of camels. After the Arabs had conquered the Middle East in the seventh and eighth centuries ce, the camel, able to survive for weeks without eating or drinking, became the main means of transportation in southwestern Asia.

In Europe, the revolution in transportation came, in large part, from the same inventions that revolutionized farming—namely, the padded horse collar and the horseshoe. Starting in the ninth century, horses were used to pull heavy loads at twice the speed of oxen. Carpenters built four-wheeled carts with swiveling front axles, brakes, and singletrees (whippletrees), a beam that equalized the load pulled by two horses when turning a corner. Such heavy wagons were a common sight by the twelfth century.

The medieval inventions allowed horses to pull four or five times as hard, tripling the amount of cargo a team could pull. The result was a major drop in the cost of transport.

Among the many different societies and political units in the world at this time, China was clearly the most dynamic and technologically advanced. Many technologies—horse collars, canals and locks, cast iron, textile machinery—originated in China and later spread to other parts of the Eastern Hemisphere.

The revolution in wet-rice agriculture under the Song produced astonishing yields and supported the highest population densities in the world, but it depended entirely on human labor. By improving their techniques and intensifying their efforts, more and more farmers could subsist on the same amount of land. Likewise, the Arab Empire restored the labor-intensive agriculture of ancient times. In the Middle East, as in China and South America, labor was abundant but arable land was scarce. It was the introduction of new crops and the increase in trade that contributed to the growth of markets and cities.

European technology differed from those of China and the Middle East in two significant ways: sources of energy and decentralization. Europe had fewer people and more land per person available for farming than China or the Middle East. The agricultural implements that European peasants used were no more complex or efficient—often less so—than their Chinese or Middle Eastern equivalents. But European farmers relied far more heavily on animal power than any other people. In the long run, reliance on nonhuman sources of energy was the foundation for improvements in living standards.

Furthermore, much of the technology developed in China and, to a lesser degree, in the Middle East was directed and controlled from above. During the Song period, the government distributed seeds, constructed canals, published technical manuals, invested in ironworks, and encouraged innovations in many other ways. In the Middle East, likewise, the rebuilding of irrigation works, harbors, and other public works was carried out by the central or provincial governments. In Europe, in contrast, almost all the technological changes we have seen originated in local initiatives, at the level of village artisans or farmers. Although the centralization of power encouraged technological innovations and hastened their diffusion, it also meant that technological change was vulnerable, for a shift in government policy could just as easily hinder as help the process. Decentralized innovation, as in Europe, was not so likely to be stopped by a change in the policies of a government.

Before the Columbian exchange, very few crops grew well in the savannas of tropical Africa and almost none in the rain forests; as a result, very few people could survive there. Sometime in the sixteenth century, the Portuguese introduced two American plants to Africa: maize, which grows well in the savannas, and manioc, a tuber that grows in almost any warm climate, even in the rain forest. Together, they provide most of the calories in the diets of Africans.

Printing helped turn China into the most bureaucratic society in the world before the eighteenth century.

Why did the rate of innovation in Asia slow down? The simple answer is the Mongols.

After the brief but destructive Mongol interlude, Arab civilization, once brilliant and innovative, became cautious and conservative. Muslim clergy resisted such innovations as mechanical clocks and printing. The Turks, who controlled the Middle East after the Mongols, kept abreast of advances in land warfare until the late eighteenth century but neglected naval shipbuilding and metallurgy and showed little interest in agricultural innovations.

Today, Westerners think of technological innovation as the key to economic growth, a rising standard of living, and national security. The Chinese had a different experience. The remarkable innovations and the flourishing economy of the Song dynasty did not protect them from the Mongols. After their defeat, China was ruled by an alien people who brought in other foreigners like Marco Polo to help them govern. After the Ming expelled the Mongols in 1368, the Chinese began to associate technological innovations and foreign ideas with defeat and humiliation.

Industrialization has four essential characteristics. The first is dividing work into a series of simple tasks carried out in factories and plantations and on construction sites. The second is using machines to replace labor and to speed up production, transportation, and communication. The third is result of the first two—namely, mass-producing goods at a lower cost than by older methods. And the fourth is generating mechanical energy from fossil fuels.

For centuries, China was far ahead of the rest of the world in many important technologies.

It mass-produced iron goods, textiles, and porcelain using elaborate machines and a complex division of labor within large organizations. All it lacked was an inexpensive source of energy. Then, under the Ming dynasty, the pace of innovation slowed down.

Even before the Industrial Revolution, Britain had been the world’s leading manufacturer and exporter of iron cannon, guns, and hardware.

The key to further advances was combining craft skills with scientific knowledge; as the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead explained: “The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention.” 3

The first nation to link scientific research with industry was Germany.

By the 1920s, with few exceptions, advances in electronics came out of corporate research laboratories.

The first industrial revolution put Great Britain ahead of its rivals in wealth and power well into the nineteenth century. Most of the technological innovations of the period 1869 to 1939, however, originated in Germany and the United States.

With abundant hydroelectric power and the latest technology, Japan soon led the world in electrification. By 1935, 89 percent of Japanese households had electricity compared with 68 percent in the United States and 44 percent in Britain.

Almost all the technologies introduced since World War II originated in the United States, Germany, Great Britain, or the Soviet Union.

  1. “The Nature of Technology” by W. Brian Arthur
  2. “Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny” by Robert Wright
  3. “The Origin of Wealth” by Eric D. Beinhocker
  4. “Creating the Twentieth Century” by Vaclav Smil
  5. “Transforming the Twentieth Century” by Vaclav Smil
  6. “Unbound: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human” by Richard L. Currier
  7. “Learning by Doing” by James Bessen
  8. “The Box: How the Shipping Container…” by Marc Levinson

If you would like to learn more about the history of technology, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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