How Has Technology Changed History? University of Virginia Professor W. Bernard Carlson Counts The Ways

March 23, 2006 — Living in a high-tech age, it’s easy to forget that  “technology” didn’t always mean iPods, DVD and the Internet. For thousands of years, it was the means by which people secured food and shelter, established social order and shaped and sustained their cultures.

“Along with language, religion and social structure, technology is part of the culture of a given people and perhaps more than any other element, is used to shape and illustrate a society’s values and beliefs,” Carlson said. “While all cultures have technology, every culture uses technology differently.”

Unlike other histories of technology, this set is organized by different cultures, rather than by different technologies. Instead of one chapter devoted to metalworking through the ages, Carlson and his co-authors looked at metalworking in the context of different societies at different times. Which metal was worked and why? What was it used to make? How did the manufactured items both reflect and shape their society?

The history begins with the Stone Age and ends with the global economy. It defines technology broadly, exploring not only traditional topics — agriculture, industrialization, transportation, navigation and computers — but also medicine and pharmacology, warfare, timekeeping, and domestic and fine arts. The chapters touch on incremental, but significant, advances as well as revolutionary breakthroughs.

Unlike many histories of technology that focus on Europe and the United States, these volumes delve into non-Western societies and their contributions to the world’s technological knowledge through the ages. Designed to serve both world history and science curriculums, they explore the history and technology of 18 different cultures, including China, the Islamic Empire, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific, the Maya and the Aztecs.

The books — which include timelines and more than 600 illustrations, including photographs, maps and diagrams — are designed for public and school libraries.

“One of the goals of the cross-cultural approach is to move readers beyond Western assumptions about technology,” Carlson said. “Nonwestern cultures may view technology in different ways. It’s not just the means to pursue material and economic goals — creating wealth, maintaining military power, improving health and providing entertainment. People may also use technology to pursue non-economic goals, such as sustaining the social order and expressing cultural meaning.”

An expert on the role of technology and innovation in American history, Carlson received his doctorate in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania. His publications include Innovation as a Social Process: Elihu Thomson and the Rise of General Electric, 1870-1900  (Cambridge University Press, 1991; paper reprint 2002).  With support from the Sloan Foundation, he is currently completing a biography of the inventor Nikola Tesla.

Founded in 1836, the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science combines research and educational opportunities at the undergraduate and graduate levels.  Within the undergraduate programs, courses in engineering, ethics, mathematics, the sciences and the humanities are available to build a strong foundation for careers in engineering and other professions. Its abundant research opportunities complement the curriculum and educate young men and women to become thoughtful leaders in technology and society.

At the graduate level, the Engineering School collaborates with the University's highly ranked medical and business schools on interdisciplinary research projects and entrepreneurial initiatives. With a distinguished faculty and a student body of 2,000 undergraduates and 650 graduate students, the Engineering School offers an array of engineering disciplines, including cutting-edge research programs in computer and information science and engineering, bioengineering and nanotechnology. For more information, visit the School of Engineering Web site.