The history of technology is the history of the invention of tools and techniques. Background knowledge has enabled people to create new things, and conversely, many scientific endeavors have become possible through technologies which assist humans to travel to places we could not otherwise go, and probe the nature of the universe in more detail than our natural senses allow.
Technological artifacts are products of an economy, a force for economic growth, and a large part of everyday life. Technological innovations affect, and are affected by, a society's cultural traditions. They also are a means to develop and project military power.
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: 1) hunters and gatherers, 2) simple agricultural, 3) advanced agricultural, 4) industrial 5) special (like 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.
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 people 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.
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.
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.
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 - a panel found at Mohenjodaro, depicts a sailing craft. Indian construction and architecture, called 'Vaastu Shastra', suggests a thorough understanding or 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, sliding calipers, the double-action piston pump, cast iron, the iron plough, the multi-tube seed drill, the wheelbarrow, 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.
Greek and Hellenistic engineers invented many technologies and improved upon pre-existing technologies, particularly during the Hellenistic period. 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.
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. Some have referred to the diffusion of numerous crops during this period as the "Globalisation of Crops", which, 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 industrial uses of tidal power, wind power, and petroleum, and large factory complexes (tiraz in Arabic). The industrial uses of watermills were in widespread use since the 8th century. A variety of industrial mills were developed in the Islamic world, including fulling mills, gristmills, hullers, paper mills, sawmills, shipmills, stamp mills, steel mills, sugar mills, tide mills, and windmills. By the 11th century, every province throughout the Islamic world had these industrial mills in operation, from al-Andalus and North Africa to the Middle East and Central Asia. Muslim engineers also developed crankshafts and water turbines.
A significant number of inventions were produced by Muslim scientists and engineers during this time, including inventors such as Abbas Ibn Firnas, Taqi al-Din, and especially al-Jazari, who is considered the "father of robotics" and "father of modern day engineering". Some of the developments from the Islamic Golden Age include the camera obscura, coffee, hang glider, hard soap, shampoo, nitric acid, alembic, valve, reciprocating, combination lock, quilting, pointed arch, surgical catgut, windmill, inoculation, fountain pen, cryptanalysis, frequency analysis, quartz glass, Persian carpet, modern cheque, celestial globe, explosive rockets and incendiary devices.
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. flat earth myth), 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 astrolab.
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'.
The 19th century saw astonishing developments in transportation, construction, and communication technologies originating in Europe, especially in Britain. The Steam Engine which had existed since the early 18th century, was practically applied to both steamboat and railway transportation. The first purpose built railway line opened between Manchester and Liverpool in 1830, the Rocket locomotive of Robert Stephenson being one of the first working locomotives used on the line. Telegraphy also developed into a practical technology in the 19th century to help run the railways safely.
Other technologies were explored for the first time, including the Incandescent light bulb. The Portsmouth Block Mills was where manufacture of ships' pulley blocks by all-metal machines first took place and instigated the age of mass production. Machine tools used by engineers to manufacture other machines began in the first decade of the century, notably by Richard Roberts and Joseph Whitworth. Steamships were eventually completely iron-clad, and played a role in the opening of Japan and China to trade with the West. Mechanical computing was envisioned by Charles Babbage but did not come to fruition. The Second Industrial Revolution at the end of the 19th century saw rapid development of chemical, electrical, petroleum, and steel technologies connected with highly structured technology research.
20th Century technology developed rapidly. Communication technology, transportation technology, broad teaching and implementation of Scientific method, and increased research spending all contributed to the advancement of modern science and technology. Due to the scientific gains directly tied to military research and development, technologies including electronic computing might have developed as rapidly as they did in part due to war. Radio, radar, and early sound recording were key technologies which paved the way for the telephone, fax machine, and magnetic storage of data. Energy and engine technology improvements were also vast, including nuclear power, developed after the Manhattan project. Transport by rocketry: most work occurred in the U.S. (Goddard), Russia (Tsiolkovsky) and Germany (Oberth). Making use of computers and advanced research labs, modern scientists have Recombinant DNA.
The National Academy of Engineering, by expert vote, established the following ranking of the most important technological developments of the 20th century :
Despite the fact we have just entered into the 21st century, technology is being developed even more rapidly, marked progress in almost all fields of science and technology has led to massive improvements to the technology we currently possess, the rate of development in computers being only one example at which the speed of progress continues forward, leading to the speculation of a technological singularity occurring within this century. After the physical barriers of the integrated circuit are reached, quantum computers might be introduced. This could pave the way to the simulation of biological brains and/or the storage thereof.
Current ongoing developments include research into nanotechnology, bioengineering, nuclear fusion (see ITER and DEMO), advanced materials (e.g., enhanced armor), alternative fuel technologies (e.g., fuel cells, plugin hybrid cars), the scramjet (along with railguns and high-energy beams for military uses), superconductivity, the memristor and a plethora of other fields.
The understanding of particle physics is also expected to expand through particle accelerator projects, such as the LHC - the largest science project in the world and neutrino detectors such as the ANTARES. Theoretical physics currently investigates quantum gravity proposals such as M-theory, superstring theory, and loop quantum gravity.
Spacecraft designs are also being developed, i.a. under the Project Constellation (see Orion and Ares V). The James Webb Space Telescope will try to identify early galaxies as well as the exact location of the Solar System within our galaxy, using the infrared spectrum. The finished International Space Station will provide an intermediate platform for space missions and zero gravity experiments. Despite challenges and criticism, the NASA and ESA plan a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s.
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