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History of technology

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History of technology, the development over time of systematic techniques for making and doing things. The term technology, a combination of the Greek technē, “art, craft,” with logos, “word, speech,” meant in Greece a discourse on the arts, both fine and applied. When it first appeared in English in the 17th century, it was used to mean a discussion of the applied arts only, and gradually these “arts” themselves came to be the object of the designation. By the early 20th century the term embraced a growing range of means, processes, and ideas in addition to International Space Station

International Space Station
The International Space Station (ISS) photographed from the space shuttle Discovery, which docked with the ISS on July 28, 2005.
NASA
White male businessman works a touch screen on a digital tablet. Communication, Computer Monitor, Corporate Business, Digital Display, Liquid-Crystal Display, Touchpad, Wireless Technology, iPad
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A highly compressed account of the history of technology such as this one must adopt a rigorous methodological pattern if it is to do justice to the subject without grossly distorting it one way or another. The plan followed in the present article is primarily chronological, tracing the development of technology through phases that succeed each other in time. Obviously, the division between phases is to a large extent arbitrary. One factor in the weighting has been the enormous acceleration of Western technological development in recent centuries; Eastern technology is considered in this article in the main only as it relates to the development of modern technology.

Within each chronological phase a standard method has been adopted for innovations. This begins with a brief review of the general social conditions of the period under discussion, and then goes on to consider the dominant materials and sources of artifacts is a determining characteristic of humanlike species. Other species make artifacts: environment in a way no other species has achieved. An ape may on occasion use a stick to beat bananas from a tree, but a person can fashion the stick into a cutting encompasses the whole evolution of humankind.

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In using rational faculties to devise techniques and modify the environment, humankind has attacked problems other than those of survival and the production of wealth with which the term technology is usually associated today. The technique of innovation on the one hand and the sociocultural conditions of the human group within which they occur on the other.

Social involvement in technological advances

An awareness of this interaction is important in surveying the development of technology through successive civilizations. To simplify the relationship as much as possible, there are three points at which there must be some social involvement in technological innovation: social need, social resources, and a sympathetic social ethos. In default of any of these factors it is unlikely that a technological innovation will be widely adopted or be successful.

The sense of social need must be strongly felt, or people will not be prepared to devote resources to a technological innovation. The thing needed may be a more efficient cutting tool, a more powerful lifting device, a labour-saving artifact or commodity that can meet the need.

Social resources are similarly an indispensable prerequisite to a successful innovation. Many Leonardo da Vinci: ornithopter

Leonardo da Vinci: ornithopter
Leonardo da Vinci's plans for an ornithopter, a flying machine kept aloft by the beating of its wings, c. 1490.
SuperStock

A sympathetic social cultivate new ideas and inventors, the breeders of such ideas. Whatever the psychological basis of inventive genius, there can be no doubt that the existence of socially important groups willing to encourage inventors and to use their ideas has been a crucial factor in the history of technology.

Social conditions are thus of the utmost importance in the development of new techniques, some of which will be considered below in more detail. It is worthwhile, however, to register another explanatory note. This concerns the axiomatic that technology is a rational activity stemming from the traditions of modern science. Nevertheless, it should be observed that technology, in the sense in which the term is being used here, is much older than science, and also that techniques have tended to ossify over centuries of practice or to become diverted into such para-rational exercises as alchemy. Some techniques became so complex, often depending upon processes of chemical change that were not understood even when they were widely practiced, that technology sometimes became itself a “mystery” or cult into which an apprentice had to be initiated like a priest into cumulative matter, in which each generation inherits a stock of techniques on which it can build if it chooses and if social conditions permit. Over a long period of time the history of technology inevitably highlights the moments of innovation that show this cumulative quality as some societies advance, stage by stage, from comparatively primitive to more sophisticated techniques. But although this development has occurred and is still going on, it is not intrinsic to the nature of technology that such a process of accumulation should occur, and it has certainly not been an inevitable development. The fact that many societies have remained stagnant for long periods of time, even at quite developed stages of technological evolution, and that some have actually regressed and lost the accumulated techniques passed on to them, demonstrates the ambiguous nature of technology and the critical importance of its relationship with other social factors.

Modes of technological transmission

Another aspect of the cumulative character of technology that will require further investigation is the manner of transmission of technological innovations. This is an elusive problem, and it is necessary to accept the phenomenon of simultaneous or parallel invention in cases in which there is insufficient evidence to show the transmission of ideas in one direction or another. The mechanics of their transmission have been enormously improved in recent centuries by the Wernher von Braun after surrendering to U.S. forces

Wernher von Braun after surrendering to U.S. forces
German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun (with arm in cast) and his brother Magnus (second from right) after surrendering to U.S. forces, May 2, 1945.
MSFC/NASA

The evidence for such processes of technological transmission is a reminder that the material for the study of the history of technology comes from a variety of sources. Much of it relies, like any historical examination, on documentary matter, although this is sparse for the early civilizations because of the general lack of interest in technology on the part of scribes and chroniclers. For these societies, therefore, and for the many millennia of earlier unrecorded history in which slow but substantial technological advances were made, it is necessary to rely heavily upon archaeological evidence. Even in connection with the recent past, the historical understanding of the processes of rapid industrialization can be made deeper and more vivid by the study of “industrial archaeology.” Much valuable material of this nature has been accumulated in museums, and even more remains in the place of its use for the observation of the field worker. The historian of technology must be prepared to use all these sources, and to call upon the skills of the archaeologist, the engineer, the architect, and other specialists as appropriate.

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