Book Summary:“Leonardo to the Internet” by Thomas Misa


Title: Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Renaissance to the Present
Author: Thomas J. Misa
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 4.5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Misa overviews the history of technology over the last 500 years, arguing that it is driven by those who fund the research.

Key Take-aways

  • The history of technology over the last 500 years can be divided into eras, each of which is defined by the reason technological innovation took place. This reason was primarily defined by who paid the engineers to innovate new technology.
  • 1450-1600: noble court patronage paid for innovation in city-building, courtly entertainment, dynastic display and waging war.
  • 1588-1740: merchants paid for innovation that promoted profitable commerce, shipping and finance.
  • 1740-1851: industrialists paid for innovation that reduced costs and expanded output.
  • 1840-1914: governments paid for innovation in weapons, medicine, transportation and communication that promoted expansion of empires overseas.
  • 1870-1930: corporate labs and universities paid for innovation to stabilize large-scale industrial systems.
  • 1936-1990: militaries paid for innovation to wage war.

Important Quotes from Book

This book explores the varied character of technologies over a long period of time, roughly the half-millennium from the Renaissance to the present. It spans the preindustrial past, the age of scientific, political, and industrial revolutions, as well as more recent topics such as imperialism, modernism, war, global culture, and security.

I began not only to think of technologies located historically and spatially in a particular society, and shaped by that society’s ideas of what was possible or desirable but also to see how these technologies evolved to shape the society’s social and cultural developments. To capture this two-way influence, I took up the notion of distinct “eras” of technology and culture as a way of organizing the material for this book.

This study began years ago in an effort to understand the work of Leonardo da Vinci.

I began to see a distinctive focus in Leonardo and in the numerous engineers with whom he shared notebook drawings and technical treatises. The technological activities of these Renaissance engineers related closely to the concerns of the Renaissance courts and city-states that commissioned their work. I failed to find Leonardo much concerned with labor-saving or “industrial” technologies, and for that matter few of his technological projects generated wealth at all. Quite the opposite. Leonardo’s technologies were typically wealth-consuming ones: the technologies of city building, courtly entertainments and dynastic display, and war making.

This chapter locates Renaissance technologists squarely within the system of court patronage. We will see that the papal court in Rome sponsored or employed such landmark technological figures as Alberti, Leonardo, and Biringuccio. Leonardo’s career as an engineer is inseparable from his work for the Medici family, the Sforza court, and the Borgia clan. The pattern of court-sponsored technologies extended right across Europe (and for that matter beyond Europe2). Royal courts in France, Spain, and England supported innovations in shipbuilding and silk weaving. Even the wellknown history of moveable-type printing needs to be reexamined in the light of pervasive court sponsorship of technical books and surprisingly wide court demand for religious publications. Characteristically, Leonardo and his fellow Renaissance-era technologists had surprising little to do with improving industry or making money in the way we typically think of technology today. Instead, Renaissance-era courts commissioned them for numerous technical projects of city-building, courtly entertainment, and dynastic display, and for the means of war.

The special character of technological creativity in the Renaissance, as we have seen, resulted from one central fact: the city-states and courts that employed Leonardo and his fellow engineers were scarcely interested in the technologies of industry or commerce. Their dreams and desires focused the era’s technologists on warfare, city building, courtly entertainments, and dynastic displays.

The influence of Renaissance engineers on Europe was substantial. The noted medieval historian Lynn White wrote, “Italian engineers scattered over Europe, from Madrid to Moscow and back to Britain, monopolizing the best jobs, erecting wonderful new machines, building palaces and fortifications, and helping to bankrupt every government which hired them. To tax-paying natives they were a plague of locusts, but rulers in the sixteenth century considered them indispensable. Their impact upon the general culture of Europe was as great as that of the contemporary Italian humanists, artists, and musicians.”

All the same, courts across Europe created large-scale markets for printed works and shaped the patronage networks for writings about technology. The first several generations of printers as well as the best-known early technical authors were, to a surprising extent, dependent on and participants in late-Renaissance court culture.

Transfer of technology before the Renaissance could be hit-or-miss. Machines invented in one time, or place, might well need to be rediscovered or even reinvented. Indeed, something very much like this occurred after the great technological advances of Song China (960–1279).

In the wake of political disruptions after 1279 Song China’s technical brilliance was lost not only to the Chinese themselves but also to the West, whose residents formed an inaccurate and incomplete view of China’s accomplishments.

The point is that before the combination of printing and geometrical perspective, inventions made in one generation might not be available to successive generations or for that matter beyond the close circle of colleagues sharing notebooks or craft practices. In these circumstances, a disruption to the social order, like the fall of a ruler and destruction of his library, would entail a disruption in the technological tradition. Technological change could not be permanent and cumulative.

The pervasiveness of the court system in the Renaissance should not really surprise us, since it was the dominant cultural and political actor at the time, fully analogous to the commercial and industrial institutions as well as the nation-states, corporations, and government agencies that followed with different imperatives and visions for technologies.

The noble courts, city-states, and prince-practitioners who employed Renaissance technologists to build cities, wage war, entertain courts, and display dynasties were not using technologies principally to create wealth or improve industries. Rather, they were using their wealth—from land rents, banking, and mercenary activities—to pay for the creation and deployment of technologies.

Even though no single year marks a shift from one era to another, the influence of Renaissance-era courts was on the wane by around 1600 while the influence of commerce was distinctly rising.

The era of commerce was thoroughly capitalistic but not industrial in character. The imperatives of commerce included carrying goods cheaply, processing them profitably, and funding the means for shipping and trading. Technologies such as innovative ship designs, import-processing techniques, and a host of financial innovations reflected these commercial impulses, just as attack chariots, court automata, and princely palaces expressed the court vision of Renaissance patrons of technologies.

Yet the real distinction of the Dutch herring fishery was not so much its volume of production but rather the consistently high quality of the packed herring and their correspondingly high trading value—characteristics that one finds again and again in the Dutch commercial era and that sharply distinguish it from the industrial era that followed.

The commerce-inspired designs for herring busses and cargo-carrying fluyts are impressive evidence of the Dutch responsiveness to commerce. Yet the real distinction of the Dutch was to take a set of innovations and make them into broad society-wide developments that shaped Dutch culture not only at the top class of wealthy merchants and investors but also down through the merchant and artisan classes. Even rural workers milking cows for cheese exports participated in the international trading economy. The distinctive trekvaarten network of horse-towed barges provided scheduled passenger service throughout the western region of the Netherlands.

The Dutch—through their East India Company in the Pacific and West India Company in the Atlantic, coupled with the extensive trading in Europe and Africa—in effect created the first truly global economy.

Underlying this global commercial expansion were extensive Dutch innovations in the basic institutions of commercial capitalism, including commodity exchanges, a public exchange bank, and a stock exchange. If the Dutch did not exactly invent capitalism, they created the first society where the principles of commerce and capitalism pervaded the culture.

The growth of the Amsterdam exchanges can be measured not only in their size, scope, and specialization but also in their financial sophistication. For example, futures contracts emerged, speculating on grain that had not yet been delivered and the “buying of herrings before they be catched.” In time, Amsterdam merchants were purchasing such varied goods as Spanish and German wools and Italian silks up to twenty-four months in advance of their arrival. Issuing maritime insurance became yet another financial activity linked to global trade. At least until London in the 1700s, there was simply no rival to Amsterdam in the breadth, depth, and refinement of its financial markets.

Dutch preeminence came through the targeted processing and selective reexporting of the traded materials…Among the “traffics” with links to the maritime sector were sugar refining, papermaking, brewing, distilling, soap boiling, cotton printing, and tobacco processing, as well as the complex of activities related to shipbuilding. Other highly specialized activities in which the Dutch gained global dominance include processing dyes and glazes, cutting and polishing diamonds, grinding glass lenses, refining whale oil, bleaching linens, and dyeing and finishing broadcloth. The making of highly precise nautical compasses, maps, and chronometers reinforced Dutch maritime dominance…  For each of these traffics, mastering special techniques and attaining superior quality were more important than achieving high levels of output. Indeed, high wages, relatively low volumes, and high-quality production typified the traffics, in sharp contrast with early industrial technologies, which emphasized low wages, high volumes, and low-quality production.

The wealth-creating imperatives of traders and merchants, boat-builders and shipowners, sugar refiners and textile makers, and many others—a far more diverse cast than the Renaissance court patrons—altered the character of technology during the era of commerce. While choosing, developing, and using technologies with the aim of creating wealth had been an undercurrent before, this era saw the flourishing of an international (if nonindustrial) capitalism as a central purpose for technology. It is really a set of wealth-creating technologies and techniques that distinguishes the Dutch commercial era: no other age and place combined bulbous cargo-carrying fluyts and factory-like herring busses, large port complexes coupled to buzzing inland cities, the array of added-value “traffic” industries, and the elaboration of world-spanning financial institutions, including exchanges for the trading of stocks and commodities, multishare ownership of ships, and futures markets for herrings, woolens, and for a time tulips.

These technologies not only set the stage for a Dutch commercial hegemony that lasted roughly a century; they also shaped the character of Dutch society and culture at all levels and across the entire country.

Wherever one looks—at the diverse stockholders of the two great overseas trading companies, the extensive trekvaarten network, the numerous owners of the trading ships, and even for a few years the distinctly down-market traders of tulips—Dutch commerce engaged the talents and wealth of an exceptionally wide swath of society. The depth and breadth of the changes that these activities represent lent a distinctly modern character to Dutch society, not only in the details of “modern” financial institutions and economic growth patterns, but in the pervasiveness of the effect that commerce and technology had on the society as a whole.

In the older view of the industrial revolution, there was no need to look at London… London, supposedly, was stuck in a preindustrial age, with its “gentlemanly capitalists” not concerned to build up massive industries and striving only to enter the landholding aristocracy.4But the notion of an industrial London is worth a second and more careful look. Around 1800, when manufacturing employed one in three of London’s workers, the city had more steam engines than any of the factory towns. In 1850 London had more manufacturing workers than the four largest factory towns in England put together. Chemical, furniture, brewing, printing, shoemaking, textile-finishing, precision-manufacturing, and heavy-engineering industries sprang up to the south and east of London’s fashionable center, often in compact specialty districts, while just downstream shipbuilding, provisioning, and processing industries surrounded the Port of London.

Not only was it the country’s largest site of industry, London’s insatiable hungers and unquenchable thirsts helped transform England from a rural-agricultural economy to an urban-industrial one. London’s growth in these decades still astounds. In 1700 London, with a half-million residents, was the largest city in Europe (surpassing Paris) and ten times more populous than the next largest British town; of all the world’s cities only Tokyo, perhaps, was larger. From 1800 to 1850 London added more residents (1.4 million) than the total 1850 populations of the country’s dozen largest textile-factory towns, even though they had experienced rapid growth themselves. In 1850 London numbered 2.4 million residents.

Reducing costs and increasing output— rather than enhancing quality, as in Dutch commerce—was the focus of technology in the industrial era. The beer known as porter deserves full recognition as a prototypical industrial-age product alongside cotton, iron, and coal.

From the first reliable figures, in the 1851 census, London’s 333,000 manufacturing workers outnumbered Manchester’s 303,000 total residents.

Yet, far and away the most important auxiliaries in the city were Manchester’s machine builders. While the first generation of them had built textile machines and managed textile factories, the midcentury machine builders—the generation of London transplants—focused on designing, building, and selling machine tools.

At midcentury in Britain, and soon across much of the industrialized world, a new technological era took shape as colonial powers addressed the unparalleled problems of far-flung overseas empires. To a striking extent, inventors, engineers, traders, financiers, and government officials turned their attentions from blast furnaces and textile factories at home to steamships, telegraphs, and railway lines for the colonies. Imperialism altered these technologies, even as these technologies made possible the dramatic expansion of Western political and economic influence around the globe.

New technologies were critical to both the penetration phase of empire, in which the British deployed steam-powered gunboats and malaria-suppressing quinine to establish settlements inland beyond the coastal trading zones, and in the subsequent consolidation phase that stressed the maintenance and control of imperial outposts through a complex of public works. Effective military technologies such as steam-powered gunboats, breechloading rifles, and later the fearsome rapid-firing machine guns helped the British extend their control over the Indian subcontinent and quell repeated uprisings among native populations.

The tremendous cost of these military campaigns as well as the ongoing expenses for transporting, lodging, provisioning, and pensioning imperial officials simply ate up the profits of empire.

Railroads in countries throughout Western Europe and North America were powerful agents of economic, political, and social change. Their immense capital requirements led to fundamental changes in the business structures of all those countries and in the financial markets that increasingly spanned them. Building and operating the railroads consumed large amounts of coal, iron, and steel, leading to rapid growth in heavy industries. Their ability to move goods cheaply led to the creation of national markets, as transportation costs became a much smaller consideration in how far away a factory’s products might be profitably sold, while their ability to move troops rapidly strengthened the nation-states that possessed them.

Imperialism was not merely a continuation of the eras of commerce or industry; rather, to a significant extent, imperialism competed with and in some circumstances displaced industry as the primary focus of technologists. By creating a captive overseas market for British steamships, machine tools, locomotives, steel, and cotton textiles, imperialism insulated British industrialists in these sectors from upstart rivals and, in the long run, may even have hastened their decline in worldwide competitiveness.Is it only a coincidence that Britain, a leader in the eras of industry and imperialism, was distinctly a follower behind Germany and the United States in the subsequent science-and-systems era?

In the half-century after 1870 a “second” industrial revolution, built from science-based technologies, altered not merely how goods were produced and consumed but also how industrial society evolved. The new industries included synthetic chemicals, electric light and power, refrigeration, and many others. By transforming curiosities of the laboratory into consumer products, through product innovation and energetic marketing schemes, science-based industry helped create a mass consumer society. A related development was the rise of corporate industry and its new relationships with research universities and government bureaus.

Owing to its strong positions in chemicals and electricity, Germany’s share of total foreign patents in the United States surpassed France’s in 1883 and pulled ahead of Canada’s in 1890 and England’s by 1900. In 1938 Germany’s U.S. patents equaled those of the other three countries combined.

Edison fought it, Thomson denied it, and Insull embraced it: a new pattern of technological change focused on stabilizing large-scale systems rather than inventing wholly new ones. In the most capital-intensive industries, including railroads, steel, chemicals, and electrical manufacturing, financiers like J. P. Morgan and Lee, Higginson in effect ended the ceaseless competition and fierce pace of freewheeling technological innovation. In doing so, they were the chief agents in giving birth to a stable organized capitalism. In the second industrial revolution, somewhat paradoxically, technological change became evolutionary.

Besides financiers, the most important agents of industrial stability were scientists and engineers. Industrial scientists and science-based engineers stabilized the large systems by striving to fit into them and, most importantly, by solving technical problems deemed crucial to their orderly expansion. Neither of these professions existed in anything like their modern form as recently as 1870. Before then, engineers had been mostly either military or “civil” engineers who built fortifications, bridges, canals, and railways. During the second industrial revolution, engineering emerged as a profession. National societies were founded in the United States by mining engineers (1871), mechanical engineers (1880), electrical engineers (1884), and chemical engineers (1908). Industrial scientists too were created in these decades. In the German chemical industry, as we saw, the “scientific masslabor” needed to synthesize and patent new dyes in the 1880s led to the first large-scale deployment of scientists in industry. Such a model of industrial research appeared somewhat later in the United States, with full-scale industrial research laboratories being organized by General Electric in 1901, by DuPont in 1902, and AT&T in 1911.

Industrial research laboratories grew only in the largest companies, and mostly in the chemical and electrical sectors of science-based industry; additionally, these research laboratories were isolated —often physically—from production facilities.

Industrial research became a source of competitive advantage for the largest firms, including General Electric, AT&T, and General Motors. Companies that could mount well-funded research efforts gained technical, patent, and legal advantages over those that could not. Independent inventors, formerly the nation’s leading source of new technology, either were squeezed out of promising market areas targeted by the large science-based firms or went to work for them solving problems of the companies’ choosing. In the electrical industry, 82 percent of research personnel were employed by just one-quarter of the companies. By the 1930s, when General Electric and AT&T between them employed 40 percent of the entire membership of the American Physical Society, the industrial research model became a dominant mode for organizing innovation and employing scientists. By 1940 DuPont alone employed 2,500 chemists. At the time fully 80 percent of the nation’s R&D funding ($250 million) came from industry.

The most important pattern was the underlying sociotechnical innovations of research laboratories, patent litigation, and the capital-intensive corporations of science-based industry. For the first time, industrial and university scientists participated equally with inventors, designers, and engineers in developing new technologies. Indeed, the R&D laboratory has become such a landmark that it is sometimes difficult for us to recall that new technologies can (and often are) a product of persons working elsewhere.

No force in the twentieth century had a greater influence in defining and shaping technology than the military. In the earlier eras of modernism and systems, independent inventors, corporations, designers, and architects played leading roles in developing such culture-shaping technologies as electricity, synthetic dyes, skyscrapers, and household technologies, while governments and trading companies had dominated the era of imperialism. But not since the era of industry had a single force stamped a more indelible imprint on technology. One might imagine a world in 1890 without the technologies of empire, but it is difficult to envision the world in 1990 absent such military-spawned technologies as nuclear power, computer chips, artificial intelligence, and the Internet.

What was new in the twentieth century was the pervasiveness of technological innovation and its centrality to military planning.

The great powers’ universities, technology companies, government institutes, and military services committed themselves to finding and funding new technologies in the hope of gaining advantage on the battlefield or in the Cold War’s convoluted diplomacy. Above all, for military officers no less than researchers, military technology funding was a way of advancing one’s vision of the future—and often enough one’s own career.

Across the 1950s and 1960s, then, the military not only accelerated development in solid-state electronics but also gave structure to the industry, in part by encouraging a wide dissemination of (certain types of) transistor technology and also by helping set industry-wide standards.

Compared to solid-state electronics, a field in which the principal military influence came in the demands of top-priority applications, military sponsorship in the field of digital computing came more directly, in the funding of research and engineering work. Most of the pioneers in digital computing either worked on military-funded contracts with the goal to develop digital computers or sold their first machines to the military services. Code-breaking, artillery range-finding, nuclear weapons designing, aircraft and missile controlling, and antimissile warning were among the leading military projects that shaped digital computing in its formative years, from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Through the military-dominated era there was an unsettling tension between the West’s individual-centered ideology and its state-centered technologies.

Ever since the science-and-systems era, it has been common to believe science is essential to technology, that scientific discoveries are the main drivers of technological innovations.

Then again, scientific theories and insights had surprisingly little to do with technological innovation during the eras of industry, commerce, and courts. Scientific discoveries did not drive the technologies of gunpowder weapons or palace building in the Renaissance, wooden shipbuilding or sugar-refining in the era of Dutch commerce, or even the steam-driven factories of the industrial revolution. Indeed, acknowledging the fact that steam engines depended on empirical engineering, while the later science of thermodynamics resulted from measuring and analyzing them, scientist historian L. J. Henderson famously wrote, “Science owes more to the steam engine than the steam engine owes to Science.” Even today, there is a wide range of interactions between university research and industrial innovation.

Science, while clearly useful in many technical fields, is neither a necessary nor an essential aspect of technology. Besides scientists, it is the case that engineers, financiers, government officials, workers, and sometimes consumers are just as intimately involved with creating technologies.

A complementary viewpoint to the linear science-industry-society model defines technology as a desirable instrument of economic growth. In the eras of commerce, industry, science and systems, and globalization, technological innovations brought about economic growth and structural change.

If you would like to learn more about the history of technological innovation, read my book From Poverty to Progress.

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