by James Burke

A Good Introduction to the History of Technology

June 4, 2002

If you've seen James Burke's TV program of the same name, or his short-lived Scientific American column, you might be taken aback by the relatively slower pacing of this book. I found that in the TV program and the magazine column, Mr. Burke ricocheted from colorful personality or idea to another, in a confusing, dazzling, and ultimately entertaining way -- giving one the idea that the history of innovation is that of one large web, but one doesn't get the larger cast of events.

However, in the book, he slows down and spends pages upon the developemnt of infantry tactics and the effects of the use of guns in battle in Medieval and Renaissance warfare. This book is simply a history of technology, told in 9 separate, large arcs, coming full circle from the tenuous and interconnected energy system that resulted in the unexpected 1965 Northeast American Blackout -- which is used as a metaphor for the development of technology as a whole.

More to the point, this book centers more on the overall social aspects and developments of different societies; Mr. Burke is British, so one sees how he comes back again and again to point out how England sprung ahead or fell behind in certain developments, and why. He does mention a few more flamboyant personalities in this history, but his thrust is that techonological progress is more a function of being in the right location at the right time, and combining the right concepts from those who came before. As well, he focuses on how technological change affects society: population and wealth fluctuations due to supply bottlenecks, how fireplaces broke up the communal manor and inspired courtly love traditions, how lack of social mobility stifled progress in England and how cheap land in America meant the first factory works here would be young women.

Sometimes Burke gets mired in the details of the way some of technological innovations work (I can't quite follow some of the explanations of how clockworks tick), but it gives one a wider perspective on what was possible at what time. It's true that each chapter works chronologically, but overall the arc of the book is not chronological, but thematic. This is not a scholarly text. However, this is a good introduction to the history of Western technology - its connections and its impacts.

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Mary Pat Campbell, last updated --- 2001