Measuring technological progress
Many sociologists and anthropologists have created social theories dealing with social and cultural evolution. Some, like Lewis H. Morgan, Leslie White, and Gerhard Lenski, declare technological progress to be the primary factor driving the development of human civilization. Morgan’s concept of three major stages of social evolution (savagery, barbarism, and civilization) can be divided by technological milestones, like fire, the bow, and pottery in the savage era, domestication of animals, agriculture, and metalworking in the barbarian era and the alphabet and writing in the civilization era.
Instead of specific inventions, White decided that the measure by which to judge the evolution of culture was energy. For White “the primary function of culture” is to “harness and control energy.” White differentiates between five stages of human development: In the first, people use energy of their own muscles. In the second, they use energy of domesticated animals. In the third, they use the energy of plants (agricultural revolution). In the fourth, they learn to use the energy of natural resources: coal, oil, gas. In the fifth, they harness nuclear energy. White introduced a formula P=E*T, where E is a measure of energy consumed, and T is the measure of efficiency of technical factors utilizing the energy. In his own words, “culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting the energy to work is increased”. Russian astronomer, Nikolai Kardashev, extrapolated his theory creating the Kardashev scale, which categorizes the energy use of advanced civilizations.
Lenski takes a more modern approach and focuses on information. The more information and knowledge (especially allowing the shaping of natural environment) a given society has, the more advanced it is. He identifies four stages of human development, based on advances in the history of communication. In the first stage, information is passed by genes. In the second, when humans gain sentience, they can learn and pass information through by experience. In the third, the humans start using signs and develop logic. In the fourth, they can create symbols, develop language and writing. Advancements in the technology of communication translates into advancements in the economic system and political system, distribution of wealth, social inequality and other spheres of social life. He also differentiates societies based on their level of technology, communication and economy:
hunters and gatherers,
special (such as fishing societies).
Finally, from the late 1970s sociologists and anthropologists like Alvin Toffler (author of Future Shock), Daniel Bell and John Naisbitt have approached the theories of post-industrial societies, arguing that the current era of industrial society is coming to an end, and services and information are becoming more important than industry and goods. Some of the more extreme visions of the post-industrial society, especially in fiction, are strikingly similar to the visions of near and post-Singularity societies.
By period and geography
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Agriculture preceded writing in the history of technology.
Olduvai stone technology (Olduwan) 2.5 million years ago (scrapers; to butcher dead animals)
Acheulean stone technology 1.6 million years ago (hand axe)
Fire creation and manipulation, used since the Paleolithic, possibly by Homo erectus as early as 1.5 Million years ago
(Homo sapiens sapiens – modern human anatomy arises, around 200,000 years ago.)
Clothing possibly 100,000 years ago.
Stone tools, used by Homo floresiensis, possibly 100,000 years ago.
Ceramics ca. 25,000 BC
Domestication of Animals, ca. 15,000 BC
Bow, sling ca. 9th millennium BC
Microliths ca. 9th millennium BC
Copper ca. 8000 BC
Agriculture and Plough ca. 8000 BC
Wheel ca. 4000 BC
Gnomon ca. 4000 BC
Writing systems ca. 3500 BC
Bronze ca. 3300 BC
Chariot ca. 2000 BC
Iron ca. 1500 BC
Sundial ca. 800 BC
Glass ca. 500 BC
Catapult ca. 400 BC
Horseshoe ca. 300 BC
Stirrup first few centuries AD
A variety of stone tools
During the Stone Age, all humans had a lifestyle which involved limited use of tools and few, if any, permanent settlements. The first major technologies, then, were tied to survival, hunting, and food preparation in this environment. Fire, stone tools and weapons, and clothing were technological developments of major importance during this period. Stone Age cultures developed music, and engaged in organized warfare. A subset of Stone Age humans developed ocean-worthy outrigger ship technology, leading to an eastward migration across the Malay archipelago, across the Indian ocean to Madagascar and also across the Pacific Ocean, which required knowledge of the ocean currents, weather patterns, sailing, celestial navigation, and star maps. The early Stone Age is described as Epipaleolithic or Mesolithic. The former is generally used to describe the early Stone Age in areas with limited glacial impact. The later Stone Age, during which the rudiments of agricultural technology were developed, is called the Neolithic period. During this period, polished stone tools were made from a variety of hard rocks such as flint, jade, jadeite and greenstone, largely by working exposures as quarries, but later the valuable rocks were pursued by tunnelling underground, the first steps in mining technology. The polished axes were used for forest clearance and the establishment of crop farming, and were so effective as to remain in use when bronze and iron appeared.
Although Paleolithic cultures left no written records, the shift from nomadic life to settlement and agriculture can be inferred from a range of archaeological evidence. Such evidence includes ancient tools, cave paintings, and other prehistoric art, such as the Venus of Willendorf. Human remains also provide direct evidence, both through the examination of bones, and the study of mummies. Though concrete evidence is limited, scientists and historians have been able to form significant inferences about the lifestyle and culture of various prehistoric peoples, and the role technology played in their lives.
Copper and Bronze Age
A late Bronze Age sword or dagger blade.
The Stone Age developed into the Bronze Age after the Neolithic Revolution. The Neolithic Revolution involved radical changes in agricultural technology which included development of agriculture, animal domestication, and the adoption of permanent settlements. These combined factors made possible the development of metal smelting, with copper and later bronze, an alloy of tin and copper, being the materials of choice, although polished stone tools continued to be used for a considerable time owing to their abundance compared with the less common metals (especially tin).
This technological trend apparently began in the Fertile Crescent, and spread outward over time. It should be noted that these developments were not, and still are not, universal. The Three-age system does not accurately describe the technology history of groups outside of Eurasia, and does not apply at all in the case of some isolated populations, such as the Spinifex People, the Sentinelese, and various Amazonian tribes, which still make use of Stone Age technology, and have not developed agricultural or metal technology.
An axehead made of iron, dating from Swedish Iron Age.
The Iron Age involved the adoption of iron smelting technology. It generally replaced bronze, and made it possible to produce tools which were stronger and cheaper to make than bronze equivalents. In many Eurasian cultures, the Iron Age was the last major step before the development of written language, though again this was not universally the case. It was not possible to mass manufacture steel because high furnace temperatures were needed, but steel could be produced by forging bloomery iron to reduce the carbon content in a controllable way. Iron ores were much more widespread than either copper or tin. In Europe, large hill forts were built either as a refuge in time of war, or sometimes as permanent settlements. In some cases, existing forts from the Bronze Age were expanded and enlarged. The pace of land clearance using the more effective iron axes increased, providing more farmland to support the growing population.
By 1000 BC 500 BC, the Germanic tribes had a Bronze Age civilization, while the Celts were in the Iron Age by the time of the Hallstatt culture. Their cultures collided with the military and agricultural practices of the Romans, leading those Europeans who were conquered to adopt Roman technological advances.
Main article: Ancient technology
It was the growth of the ancient civilizations which produced the greatest advances in technology and engineering, advances which stimulated other societies to adopt new ways of living and governance.
The Egyptians invented and used many simple machines, such as the ramp to aid construction processes. The Indus Valley Civilization, situated in a resource-rich area, is notable for its early application of city planning and sanitation technologies. Ancient India was also at the forefront of seafaring technology panel found at Mohenjodaro, depicts a sailing craft. Indian construction and architecture, called ‘Vaastu Shastra’, suggests a thorough understanding of materials engineering, hydrology, and sanitation.
The Chinese made many first-known discoveries and developments. Major technological contributions from China include early seismological detectors, matches, paper, cast iron, the iron plough, the multi-tube seed drill, the suspension bridge, the parachute, natural gas as fuel, the magnetic compass, the raised-relief map, the propeller, the crossbow, the South Pointing Chariot, and gun powder.
An illustration of the aeolipile, the earliest steam-powered device
Greek and Hellenistic engineers invented many technologies and improved upon pre-existing technologies. Particularly the Hellenistic period saw a sharp rise in technological inventiveness, fostered by a climate of openness to new idea, royal patronage the blossom of a mechanistic philosophy and the establishment of the Library of Alexandria and its close association with the adjacent museion. In contrast to the typically anonymous inventor of earlier ages, ingenuine minds such as Archimedes, Philo of Byzantium, Heron and Ctesibius now remained known by name to posterity.
Ancient Greek innovations were particularly pronounced in mechanical technology, including the ground-breaking invention of the watermill which constituted the first human-devised motive force not to rely on muscle labour (besides the sail). Apart from their pioneer use of waterpower, Greek inventors were also the first to experiment with wind power (see Heron’s windwheel) and even created the earliest steam engine (the aeolipile), opening up entirely new possibilities in harnessing natural forces whose full potential came only to be exploited in the industrial revolution. Of particular importance for the operation of mechanical devices became the newly devised right-angled gear and the screw.
The compartmented water-wheel, here its overshot version, was invented in Hellenistic times
Ancient agriculture, as in any period prior to the modern age the primary mode of production and subsistence, and its irrigation methods were considerably advanced by the invention and widespread application of a number of previously unknown water-lifting devices, such as the vertical water-wheel, the compartmented wheel, the water turbine, Archimedes screw, the suction pump, the bucket-chain and pot-garland, the force pump, the suction pump, the double-action piston pump and quite possibly the chain pump.
In music, water organ, invented by Ctesibius and subsequently improved, constituted the earliest instance of a keyboard instrument. In time-keeping, the introduction of the inflow clepsydra and its mechanization by the dial and pointer, the application of a feedback system and the escapement mechanism far superseded the earlier outflow clepsydra.
The famous Antikythera mechanism, a kind of analogous computer working with a differential gear, and the astrolabe show great refinement in the astronomical science.
Greek engineers were also the first to devise automaton such as vending machines, suspended ink pots, automatic washstands and doors, primarily as toys, which however featured many new useful mechanisms such as the cam and gimbals.
In other fields, ancient Greek inventions include the catapult and the gastraphetes crossbow in warfare, hollow bronze-casting in metallurgy, the dioptra for surveying, in infrastructure the lighthouse, central heating, the tunnel excavated from both ends by scientific calculations, the ship trackway, the dry dock and plumbing. In horizontal vertical and transport great progress resulted from the invention of the crane, the winch, the wheelbarrow and the odometer.
Further newly created techniques and items were spiral staircases, the chain drive, sliding calipers and showers.
Pont du Gard in France, a Roman aqueduct
The Romans developed an intensive and sophisticated agriculture, expanded upon existing iron working technology, created laws providing for individual ownership, advanced stone masonry technology, advanced road-building (exceeded only in the 19th century), military engineering, civil engineering, spinning and weaving and several different machines like the Gallic reaper that helped to increase productivity in many sectors of the Roman economy. Roman engineers were the first to build monumental arches, amphitheatres, aqueducts, public baths, true arch bridges, harbours, reservoirs and dams, vaults and domes on a very large scale across their Empire. Notable Roman inventions include the book (Codex), glass blowing and concrete. Because Rome was located on a volcanic peninsula, with sand which contained suitable crystalline grains, the concrete which the Romans formulated was especially durable. Some of their buildings have lasted 2000 years, to the present day.
The engineering skills of the Inca and the Mayans were great, even by today’s standards. An example is the use of pieces weighing in upwards of one ton in their stonework placed together so that not even a blade can fit in-between the cracks. The villages used irrigation canals and drainage systems, making agriculture very efficient. While some claim that the Incas were the first inventors of hydroponics, their agricultural technology was still soil based, if advanced. Though the Maya civilization had no metallurgy or wheel technology, they developed complex writing and astrological systems, and created sculptural works in stone and flint. Like the Inca, the Maya also had command of fairly advanced agricultural and construction technology. Throughout this time period much of this construction, was made only by women, as men of the Maya civilization believed that females were responsible for the creation of new things. The main contribution of the Aztec rule was a system of communications between the conquered cities. In Mesoamerica, without draft animals for transport (nor, as a result, wheeled vehicles), the roads were designed for travel on foot, just like the Inca and Mayan civilizations.
Medieval and Modern technologies
Medieval counterweight trebuchet (reconstruction)
Main article: Medieval technology
European technology in the Middle Ages may be best described as a symbiosis of traditio et innovatio. While medieval technology has been long depicted as a step backwards in the evolution of Western technology, sometimes willfully so by modern authors intent on denouncing the church as antagonistic to scientific progress (see e.g. Myth of the Flat Earth), a generation of medievalists around the American historian of science Lynn White stressed from the 1940s onwards the innovative character of many medieval techniques. Genuine medieval contributions include for example mechanical clocks, spectacles and vertical windmills. Medieval ingenuity was also displayed in the invention of seemingly inconspicuous items like the watermark or the functional button. In navigation, the foundation to the subsequent age of exploration was laid by the introduction of pintle-and-gudgeon rudders, lateen sails, the dry compass the horseshoe and the astrolabe.
Significant advances were also made in military technology with the development of plate armour, steel crossbows, counterweight trebuchets and cannon. Perhaps best known are the Middle Ages for their architectural heritage: While the invention of the rib vault and pointed arch gave rise to the high rising Gothic style, the ubiquitous medieval fortifications gave the era the almost proverbial title of the ‘age of castles’.
Muslim Agricultural Revolution
Main articles: Muslim Agricultural Revolution, Inventions in the Islamic world, and Timeline of Muslim scientists and engineers
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From the 8th century, the medieval Islamic world witnessed a fundamental transformation in agriculture known as the “Muslim Agricultural Revolution”, “Arab Agricultural Revolution”, or “Green Revolution”. Due to the global economy established by Muslim traders across the Old World during the “Afro-Asiatic age of discovery” or “Pax Islamica”, this enabled the diffusion of many crops, plants and farming techniques between different parts of the Islamic world, as well as the adaptation of crops, plants and techniques from beyond the Islamic world, distributed throughout Islamic lands which normally would not be able to grow these crops. The diffusion of numerous crops during this period led, along with an increased mechanization of agriculture, led to major changes in economy, population distribution, vegetation cover, agricultural production and income, population levels, urban growth, the distribution of the labour force, linked industries, cooking and diet, clothing, and numerous other aspects of life in the Islamic world.
Muslim engineers in the Islamic world were responsible for numerous innovative industrial uses of hydropower, the early indu