History of technology

history of the invention of tools and techniques

History of technology is the history of the invention of tools and techniques and is similar to other sides of the history of humanity. Technology can refer to methods ranging from as simple as language and stone tools to the complex genetic engineering and information technology that has emerged since the 1980s. The term technology comes from the Greek word techne, meaning art and craft, and the word logos, meaning word and speech. It was first used to describe applied arts, but it is now used to described advancements and changes that affects the environment around us.

Mill & Grinder Windmill
Georg Andreas Böckler (1661)
Overshot waterwheel
Jakobsthal, Germany


  • The centre we have chosen is that of the cotton manufacture; a branch of commerce, the rapid and prodigious increase of which is, perhaps, absolutely unparalleled in the annals of trading nations.
    • John Aikin, A Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles Round Manchester (1795) p. 3.
  • Cease from grinding, ye women who toil at the mill; sleep late, even if the crowing cocks announce the dawn. For Demeter has ordered the Nymphs to perform the work of your hands, and they, leaping down on top of the wheel, turn its axle which, with its revolving spokes, turns the heavy concave Nisyrian mill-stones. We taste again the joys of the primitive life, learning to feast on the products of Demeter without labour.
  • The application of clay to the making of vases probably soon caused the invention of the potter's-wheel, before which period only vessels fashioned by the hand, and of rude unsymmetrical shape, could have been made. But the application of a circular lathe, laid horizontally and revolving on a central pivot, on which the clay was placed, and to which it adhered, was in its day a truly wonderful advance in the art. As the wheel spun round, all combinations of oval, spherical, and cylindrical forms could be produced, and the vases became not only symmetrical in their proportions, but true in their capacity. The invention of the wheel has been ascribed to all the great nations of antiquity. It is represented in full activity in the Egyptian sculptures; it is mentioned in the Scriptures, and was certainly in use at an early period in Assyria. The Greeks and Romans have attributed it to a Scythian philosopher, and to the States of Athens, Corinth, and Sicyon, the three great rivals in the ceramic art. The very oldest vases of Greece, some of which are supposed to have been made in the heroic ages, bear marks of having been turned upon the wheel. Indeed, it is not possible to find any Greek vases except those made by the wheel or by moulds; which latter process was applied only at a late period to their production.
  • Although none of the very ancient kilns have survived the destructive influence of time, yet among all the great nations baked earthenware is of the highest antiquity. In Egypt, in the tombs of the first dynasties, vases and other remains of baked earthenware are abundantly found; and in Assyria and Babylon, the oldest bricks and tablets have passed through the furnace. ...The desire of rendering terra-cotta less porous, and of producing vases capable of retaining liquids, gave rise to the covering of it with a vitreous enamel or glaze. The invention of glass has been hitherto generally attributed to the Phoenicians: but opaque glasses or enamels, as old as the XVIIIth dynasty, and enamelled objects as early as the IVth, have been found in Egypt. The employment of copper to produce a brilliant blue coloured enamel was very early both in Babylonia and Assyria; but the use of tin for a white enamel, as recently discovered in the enamelled bricks and vases of Babylonia and Assyria, anticipated by many centuries the rediscovery of that process in Europe in the 15th century, and shows the early application of metallic oxides. This invention apparently remained for many centuries a secret among the Eastern nations only, enamelled terra-cotta and glass forming articles of commercial export from Egypt and Phoenicia to every part of the Mediterranean. Among the Egyptians and Assyrians enamelling was used more frequently than glazing...
  • With the advent of metal tools in the bronze age and later in the iron age the arts of wood-working became more precise and more specialized. ...By 2800 B.C. it could be said that a complete mastery over wood had been achieved in the most advanced civilizations. ...Plywood had been invented in Egypt where wood was scarce and plywood with six alternate layers of different varieties of wood was made. The plies were usually fastened together by wooden pegs. Twelve centuries later, in the Eighteenth Dynasty, veneering was practised and inlaying with ivory and ebony and overlaying with gold, silver and copper had been perfected. Nails were usually wood pegs but for delicate work minute metal nails were used. The adze for smoothing... was one of the principal tools of the carpenter, with a blade up to 18 in. wide, for the wood plane was not invented until Roman times.
    The increasing skill... is particularly evident in the wooden carts and chariots that have been discovered.
    • Aubrey F. Burstall, A History of Mechanical Engineering (1965)
  • To rob Britain of her steam engines would be to rob her of her coal and iron, to deprive her of her sources of wealth, to ruin her prosperity, to annihilate that collosal power.
    • Sadi Carnot, "The Motive Power of Heat," (1824) as quoted in The Advancement of Science (1950) British Association for the Advancement of Science, Vol. 7, p. 109.
  • The hand-axe, made of sandstone, quartz, or lava as well as of flint, served mankind for at least a thousand centuries and spread over nearly one-fifth of the land-surface of the globe. ...With the development of the spear-thrower and the bow, man the technologist began to win his long struggle for human supremecy by matching skill against animal strength. ...the unevenness of technical development runs right through human development.
    • T. K. Derry, Trevor I. Williams, A Short History of Technology (1960) Ch. 1 General Historical Survey, Man Before Civilization.
  • The industrial revolution was well under way before the steam-engine came into general use... Only two prime-movers—the water-wheel and the windmill—were widely available, and with very few exceptions these yielded no more than 10 h.p. and often less. ...In the late eighteenth and in the nineteenth century the efficiency of the water-wheel was considerably improved by theoretical and practical studies made by John Smeaton... Among the numerous engineers influenced by his work was Joseph Glynn... Up to 1800 there were no steam-engines developing more than about 50 h.p. ...as late as 1835 the average power of steam-engines in Britain was only 15 h.p.
    • T. K. Derry, Trevor I. Williams, A Short History of Technology (1960) Ch. 11 The Steam-Engine, Introduction.
  • It has sometimes been suggested that the wall paintings carried out by the hunters in southwestern France in caves during the Ice Age are unusual and represent a flowering of the arts which died... [However,] early farming communities ...frequently carried out quite elaborate paintings on the walls of their houses ...they appear to have decorated themselves as well, and we find small pestles and mortars used for grinding pigments in the making of cosmetics on many of their sites. ...[A] search had to be made for suitable pigments, and this ...led mankind to the ores of at least two metals. Yellow ocher or limonite, and red ocher or hematite, commonly known as jeweler's rouge, are both ores of iron, while the green mineral, malachite, and the blue mineral, azurite, are both ores of copper. But ...occasionally sizable lumps of copper are to be found among the ores of the metal. It is therefore more than a possibility that man's first interest in metallic copper was aroused while he was ...searching for a suitable green pigment...
    • Henry W. M. Hodges, Technology in the Ancient World (1970) Ch. 3 The Spread of Farming and the Emergence of Embryonic Cities and of Writings (5000-3000 B.C)
  • Tradition has it that Menes not only concerned himself with the unification of Egypt but also with the control of the river: to him is attributed the first damming of the Nile, the digging of dikes for agricultural purposes and indeed the first attempt to control and apportion the waters of the river. The wealth of Egypt was thus, with Mesopotamia, based upon its agricultural output. However, unlike Mesopotamia, the Egyptians had on their doorstep a number of mineral resources that they were able to exploit with little effort, including copper ores, gold and a wide range of rocks suitable for building and the making of a wide variety of ornaments.
    [S]hortly before the year 3000 metallurgists made a discovery that was to transform the entire "industry." ...by mixing a small quantity of tin ore with the copper ores when... smelted... they discovered the alloy bronze. The occurrence of tinstone... does not occur in the same type of deposit as do the ores of copper, but rather, [near] veins of gold. ...Thus tinstone ...may well have been noticed during washing for gold... finding that the little black lumps of ore were relatively heavy, presumably made various attempts at smelting them until they arrived empirically at a suitable alloy... [T]he effect is to reduce the melting point... they had a far more fluid metal that was much easier to cast. ...the quality of casting improved dramatically.
    • Henry W. M. Hodges, Technology in the Ancient World (1970) Ch. 4 Of Monuments, Ships, Metallurgy and Military Technology (3000-2000 B.C.)
  • If the steam engine be the most powerful instrument in the hands of man, to alter the face of the physical world, it operates, at the same time, as a powerful moral lever in forwarding the great cause of civilization. We cannot, therefore, recall... the invention through all its consequences, without feeling the beneficial influence of this discovery upon all nations, from those most advanced, to those which have made the least progress, in the arts and refinements of life.
    • William Huskisson, Speech at Freemason's Hall, upon erecting a monument to James Watt (June 18, 1824) The Speeches of the Right Honorable William Huskisson (1831) Vol. 3, Appendix, No. V, p. 671.
  • [M]ajor social disaster does not occur until there exist men isolated, by the advance of science or technics, and by the elaboration of social economy, from direct contact through hands and eyes and feet and noses, as well as minds, with the life of a soil community. ...[N]ot even the most arrogant of the Greeks had quite attained to [a] notion of inquiring into nature as if man stood god-like outside it. Galileo, Leeuwenhoek, Newton, were, in their methods, expressing the peculiarly Judeo-Christian idea that men were God's principal tenants, the rest of creation the fittings and stock let with the property. ...One of the last trades to which science, the method of inquiry into nature, but not living as a part of nature, was applied, was that of the farmer. It would be almost impossible to exaggerate the disasters which ensued.
    • Edward Hyams, Soil and Civilization (1952) Ch. 2, Man and Soil.
  • The American pioneer peasants were not seizing made-land but virgin soil. Faced with a choice between park-land, forest and steppe, they naturally swarmed toward the latter, for it offered few natural obstacles to the plough, and seemed to have been made for just such a contingency as the sudden arrival of men far advanced in agricultural techniques. But land which, in semi-arid conditions and in a state of nature, offers few natural obstacles to the plough, is land which will not long stand ploughing; and ought not to be ploughed. The case of Oklahoma... [is] an example of men, considered as a disease of soil, reaching a mortal stage of virulence within half a century.
    • Edward Hyams, Soil and Civilization (1952) Ch. 10, Oklahoma: Death of a Soil.
  • The country and the period that witnessed the extraordinary growth of the cotton manufacture, the birth of the machine industry and the organization of the factory system, witnessed also a parallel development in the iron industry. This simultaneous progress is a most interesting fact, for the two industries concerned are totally different. They have nothing in common either in their material or their essential processes; and their technical advancement had therefore to proceed by quite different methods. Only deep-lying causes could make them participate in one general evolution. Moreover, the changes in the textile and the metal-working industries are... mutually complementary, like the different parts of an organized body. The beginning of machine industry belong to the history of the textile trades, but its final triumph throughout the world was made possible only by the development of the metal industries.
    • Paul Mantoux, The Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century: An Outline of the Beginnings of the Modern Factory System in England (1906) Tr. Marjorie Vernon (1928)
Difference Engine
based upon
Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2
  • Babbage... had early conceived the notion he picturesquely called "the Engine eating its own tail" by which the results of the calculation appearing in the table column might be made to affect the other columns, and thus change the instructions set into the machine. ...[A]fter a striking mathematical digression into difference functions new to mathematics, and suggested only by the operation of the engine, he built ...a machine capable of carrying out any mathematical operation instead of only the simple routine of differences ...Such a machine would need instructions both by setting in initial numbers, as in the Difference Engine, and also far more generally by literally telling it what operations to carry out, and in what order. [The arithmetic unit was] capable of repeated additions, of multiplication which is hardly more than that, and of reversing the procedure for subraction and division... It would work on previously obtained intermediate results, stored in the memory section... or upon freshly found numbers. It could use auxiliary functions, logarithms, or similar tabular numbers, of which it would possess its own library. It could make judgements by comparing numbers... proceeding upon lines not uniquely specified in advance... carried out wholly mechanically. ...The operation depended upon punched cards... modeled on the already well-worked-out scheme of the Jacquard loom. ...[T]he process was elaborately safeguarded against the perils of friction, jamming, and even errors of human attendants...
    • Philip Morrison, Emily Morrison, Introduction, Charles Babbage and his Calculating Engines (1961)
  • Thanks to the menial services of wind and water, a large intelligentsia could come into existence, and great works of art and scholarship and science and engineering could be created without recourse to slavery: a release of energy, a victory for the human spirit. Measuring gains not in horsepower originally used but in work finally accomplished, the eotechnic period compares favorably both with the epochs that preceded it and with the phases of mechanical civilization that followed it. When the textile industries attained an unheard of volume of production in the eighteenth century it was by means of water power, not the steam engine, that this was first achieved; and the first prime mover to exceed the poor five or ten per cent efficiency of the early steam engines was Fourneyron's water-turbine, a further development of the Baroque spoonwheel, perfected in 1832. By the middle of the nineteenth century water-turbines of 500 H.P. had been built. Plainly, the modern industrial revolution would have come into existence and gone on steadily had not a ton of coal been dug in England, and had not a new iron mine been opened.
  • Glass... helped to alter the very concept of self. In a small way, glass had been used for mirrors by the Romans; but the background was a dark one, and the image was no more plain than... the polished metal surface. By the sixteenth century, even before the invention of plate glass that followed a hundred years later, the mechanical surface of the glass had been improved to such an extent that, by coating it with a silver amalgam, an excellent mirror could be created. ...For perhaps the first time, except for reflections in the water and in the dull surfaces of metal mirrors, it was possible to find an image that corresponded accurately to what others saw. ...The use of the mirror signalled the beginning of introspective biography in the modern style... The self in the mirror corresponds to the physical world that was brought to light by natural science in the same epoch: it was the self in abstracto... the more accurate the physical instrument, the more sufficient the light on it, the more relentlessly does it show the effects of age, disease, disappointment, slyness, covetousness, weakness... quite as clearly as health, joy and confidence. Indeed, when one is completely whole and at one with the world one does not need the mirror: it is in the period of psychic disintegration that the individual... turns to the lonely image to see what in fact is there and what he can hold on to; and it was in the period of cultural disintegration that men began to hold the mirror up to outer nature.
  • In pursuing his experiments on the weight of the air, Pascal was led to inquire into the general laws of the equilibrium of fluids, and in the year 1653, he composed two treatises [De l'Equilibre des Liqueurs and De la Pesanteur de la Masse de l'Air] on that subject which were not published till 1663, the year after his death. In order to determine the general conditions of the equilibrium of fluids, Pascal supposes two inequal apertures to be made in a vessel filled with a fluid and closed on all sides. If two pistons are applied to these apertures, and pressed by forces proportional to the area of the apertures, the fluid will remain in equilibrio. But the most remarkable part... is his application of the general principle to the construction of what he calls the Mechanical Machine for multiplying forces, an effect which, he says, may be produced to any extent we choose, as one man may by means of this machine, raise a weight of any magnitude. This new machine is the Hydrostatic Press, first introduced by our celebrated countryman M. Bramah...
    • The North British Review (August, 1844) Vol. 1, p. 302, "Pascal's Life, Writings, and Discoveries" Art. I.—Lettres écrites à un Provincial par Blaise Pascal, précédées d'un Eloge de Pascal, par M. Bordas Demoulin, Discours qui a remporté le Prix décerné par l'Académie Française, le 30 Juin 1842, et suivies d'un Essai sur les Provinciales et le style de Pascal. Par Francois de Neufchateau. Paris, 1843.
  • What if Roosevelt and Churchill had accepted the proposals from Bohr, Szilard, and others to internationalize the project? Would an arms race with Russia still have resulted? The answer is probably yes. Bohr's idealistic concept was essentially a free exchange of information internationally. All nations would pool scientific knowledge, rather than keep it secret. An international body consisting mainly of scientists would oversee its exploitation. These ideas harked back to the free flow of information about physics in the fifty years before the Second World War, a period Bohr regarded as a golden age. However, not only times but nuclear physics had changed. Nuclear physics was by then perceived as having not only massive military potential but real commercial value for power generation. But these factors conferred great diplomatic, economic, and political power. For Stalin, possession of nuclear capability had immense importance, both symbolically and practically. Generation of electricity from nuclear power had the potential to achieve his long stated aim to "catch up and overtake" the West in terms of industrialization. Nuclear weapons would give him the ability to rule over his increasing empire in Eastern Europe, while allowing him to appear as, and to act as, the equal or the best of the West elsewhere. Western lack of trust in a totalitarian regime made a race inevitable.
    • Diana Preston, Before the Fallout: from Marie Curie to Hiroshima (2005)
  • In 1895 the novelist Henry James acquired electric lighting; in 1896 he rode a bicycle; in 1897 he wrote on a typewriter; in 1898 he saw a cinematograph. Within a very few years he could have had a Freudian analysis, traveled in an aircraft, understood the principles of the jet-engine or even space travel.
  • [C]rafts—the development of techniques designed to serve human activity; and rituals—the attempt to control the powers of Nature, not only for comfort and convenience, but rather so that man shall live in harmony with the cosmic order... So far as we know, these represented the whole of man's understanding of the material world, until about the year 600 B.C. After that time, we find a parallel, intellectual tradition growing... with very different aims... eventually re-applied for practical ends...
  • The term Factory, in technology, designates the combined operation of many orders of work-people, adult and young, in tending with assiduous skill a system of productive machines continuously impelled by a central power. This definition includes such organizations as cotton-mills, flax-mills, silk-mills, woollen-mills, and certain engineering works; but it excludes those in which the mechanisms do not form a connected series, nor are dependent on one prime mover. Of the latter class, examples occur in iron-works, dye-works, soap-works, brass-foundries, &c. Some authors, indeed, have comprehended under the title factory, all extensive establishments wherein a number of people co-operate towards a common purpose of art; and would therefore rank breweries, distilleries, as well as the workshops of carpenters, turners, coopers, &c., under the factory system. But I conceive that this title, in its strictest sense, involves the idea of a vast automaton, composed of various mechanical and intellectual organs, acting in uninterrupted concert for the production of a common object, all of them being subordinated to a self-regulated moving force.
    • Andrew Ure, The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835) Ch. 1 General View of Manufacturing Industry, pp. 13-14.
  • Since, until recent centuries, technology was chiefly the concern of groups which wrote little, the role which technological development plays in human affairs has been neglected...
Fig. 1. von Guericke's 1st Air Pump, Experimenta Nova (ut vocantur) De Vacuo Spatio (1672) p. 74.
  • Of fundamental importance for the study of the physical properties of gases was the invention of the air-pump by Otto von Guericke, about the middle of the seventeenth century. ...The form of the instrument underwent a gradual evolution in his hands. The earlier types were of very simple design (see Illustr. [Fig. 1]). The first consisted of a cask well caulked with pitch and filled with water, which was evacuated by means of a brass pump having two valves. As the water was pumped out, however, the air was heard rushing through the pores of the wooden cask. A similar result was obtained when the cask was completely enclosed in a larger one, also containing water. Guericke accordingly gave up using wooden vessels, and attempted instead to evacuate a copper sphere from which he pumped out the air directly without previously filling it with water. ...[T]he sphere collapsed ...owing ...to the pressure of the external air, the vessel not having been made perfectly spherical. Guericke ...had another ...constructed ...and succeeded in obtaining a fairly high vacua. This must have been before 1654...
    • Abraham Wolf, A History of Science, Technology and Philosophy: in the 16th & 17th Centuries (1935) Vol. 1, Ch. V. Scientific Instruments.

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