A thousand years of better mousetraps

A Culture of Improvement
June 15, 2007

The history of technology is not the same as the history of inventions, says David Edgerton, but it's a common assumption

What text to use for a survey course in the history of technology has long proved problematic. Even in the 1990s there were reports that people were still listing Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilisation , which was published in 1934. This is both more and less surprising than it seems. Mumford's text was broad-ranging, interesting and opinionated, but it was no textbook and he was not an academic, or even a specialist in the history of technology.

Although there have long been complaints of a lack of alternatives, there were always a few. From non-academics came Friedrich Klemm's History of Western Technology (1954, translated into English in 1964) and T. K. Derry and T. I. Williams's A Short History of Technology from the Earliest Times to AD1900 (1961). More recently, the academics came into the market. Arnold Pacey has produced many textbooks, notably The Maze of Ingenuity (1974 and 1992), Donald Cardwell produced a very old-fashioned and science-centred Fontana History of Technology (1994), while Carroll Pursell wrote a much more diverse and imaginative text called White Heat: People and Technology (1994). A decade later we get Thomas J. Misa's From Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Renaissance to the Present (2004) and Mikael Hård and Andrew Jamison's Hubris and Hybrids: A Cultural History of Technology and Science (2005).

By virtue of its range, quality, length (nearly 600 pages) and comprehensiveness, Robert Friedel's book will go to the top of the list as the standard text for an introductory Charlemagne-to-George-Bush course in the history of technology. Roughly ten chapters take us from 1000 to 1700, about another ten cover 1750 to 1900, and four the last century - a slightly odd distribution, given the importance of invention in the most recent period. The geographical coverage is largely north-west Europe and North America (with only a few exceptions). The book is clearly written, has a nice way of dealing with complex materials and is well illustrated with reproductions of prints and photographs and original drawings of great clarity, though no tables or graphs.

Its richness provides an opportunity to reflect on what the history of technology has come to represent, at least at the level of general texts.

Reviewing Derry and Williams's Short History of Technology in 1961, Thomas P. Hughes lamented that "influenced by prior scholarship they have generally written of the history of technology as if it were identical with the history of invention". That observation needed the vital qualification that it and other histories were very skewed histories of invention, which dealt only with a small proportion of successful inventions, and hardly at all with the largest category of all, those that got nowhere. Thehistory of invention is as yet unwritten and is largely a his-tory of failure.

Yet the identification of technology with successful invention lives on powerfully and is well documented in this book. The introduction tells us the subject matter is the "nature of technological change", why and how technological change has changed, and how the changes have changed. It promises to be a history of invention and innovation, and most particularly and interestingly of "improvement" in technology. The term is well chosen, for it avoids the usually misleading (and almost always post hoc) distinctions between radical and incremental inventions. Improvements can be small or large and apply to all technologies, whether old or new.

Surprisingly, the book does not systematically address improvement but is instead a very familiar account of selected Western technologies at early points in their history, the standard conflation. Agriculture thus appears in a chapter on the medieval heavy plough, the horse and three-course rotation, and again in the 19th century with mechanisation and fertiliser being applied. But the greatest-ever age of agricultural improvement in the rich West, the late 20th century, is not discussed.

The subjects of the four chapters on the 20th century are the early histories of strategic bombing, the nuclear bomb, dams and electrification, computers, the internet, jets and supersonic airliners, eugenics, television and radio, with bicycles as nearly the only small-scale machine.

Yet it would be wrong to criticise the book on these grounds because, like the focus on early histories, the choice of technologies is very much the conventional one in histories of technology. Still, it would have been good to see more analysis along the lines of Friedel's brilliant book Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty (1994), which explored the relentless search for novelty in an area where it was hardly essential.

If innovation-centredness, and the focus on a standard set of technologies taken to be important, has been common to most histories of technology for generations, there have been important changes over time. There is progress in historical writing (as those who would deny it in history are especially prone to insist). But that progress can come at a cost, particularly where the chronological scope is large. There is, as in this case, the danger of a lack of confidence in telling a grand story. This leads to a lack of explicit structuring of the narrative, which leaves us with implicit but sometimes unsatisfactory treatments of big issues.

It is not at all clear what the big issues are in this book. There is modernity, there is improvement, but no progress, or capitalism, or much on the rise of the West. Without much explanation, the 20th century is not regarded as a great age of improvement at all: two of the four 20th-century chapters are called "The corruption of improvement" and "Improvement's end". Yet the familiar stories are there: less sharply outlined, perhaps, but still structuring the narrative.

One difficulty is that there is no sense of there being a debate between narratives, or even really between historians. That reflects in part, but in part only, the lack of structured debates within the community of historians of technology. They tend to engage with a poorly defined external enemy: the purveyors of linear models, technological determinism, naive progressivism and suchlike. Those themes are reflected here in the call to find a new language in which technology is to be discussed, to replace the crass determinism about technology and its effects with a more contingent account.

Revealingly, too, the reader is invited to think of the "moral" questions around technology, for most writing in what is labelled "history of technology" is not concerned with engaging with the history of these subjects, but rather with the nature of technology; it is studied in pastmanifestations, but the aim is to inform today's debates. That is a laudable aim, but there is a difference between historical illustration and historical analysis.

This in itself might explain the lack of engagement with other historical literatures and issues. For a European author there is a surprising lack of concern with economic or business history. Perhaps the best way of thinking about the history of technology is that it is not the fiefdom of a particular group of academics, but rather an interest of scholars from many disciplines - from historically minded anthropologists and architects to historians of many stripes - and that the best courses will include not only Mumford's work, but this book, too.

David Edgerton is Hans Rausing professor in the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, Imperial College London.

A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium

Author - Robert Friedel
Publisher - MIT Press
Pages - 588
Price - £24.95
ISBN - 9780262062626

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