March 31 - April 13, 2006
Vol. 36, Issue 6
Back Issues
U.Va.leads nation's publics with highest graduation rate for African-Americans
Nursing gets $1.132 million
Peace Corps celebrates 45 years of service
U.Va.'s link to the East
How has technology changed history?
Teaching, it's a simple game
'Building Goodness' in Mississippi
Shatin makes musical sense of Jabberwocky
'Luminosity' sheds light on family's sordid past

VQR beats 'The Yankees'


How has technology changed history?
W. Bernard Carlson counts the ways

Bernard Carlson
Photo by Dan Addison

By Charlotte Crystal

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.

W. Bernard Carlson, professor of science, technology and society at the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, believes that students don’t learn enough about the vital interaction of technology, culture and history. So, he decided to do something about it. The result is the seven-volume “Technology in World History,” just published by Oxford University Press, for which Carlson served as editor in chief.

“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. “Non-Western 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.

Technology = Out-of-the-box thinking in any culture

QHow did the Aztecs grow food in the swamps around the city of Tenochtitlan (known today as Mexico City)?

A They built chinampas, or artificial islands, by digging canals into the muddy swampland, piling up the muck into islands and reinforcing them with stakes and vines.

QWhy do traditional Chinese coins have a square hole in the middle?

AThe hole was put there by the first emperor of China, Shihuangdi (259-210 BCE), as an everyday reminder to people of his imperial authority. Shihuangdi also had his tomb guarded by an army made up of thousands of terra cotta soldiers.

QWhat agricultural method did the ancient Maya use that their descendants continue to use today?

ASlash-and-burn agriculture, or “swidden,” which involves rotating fields in and out of production. The fields are left fallow for 8-10 years and replanted after burning the vegetation that has grown on them in the meantime. Ash from the burned vegetation returns nutrients to the soil and helps tropical soils, typically low in nutrients, recover their fertility.

QWhy did the Aborigines invent the boomerang?

ASo they wouldn’t have to chase after their “hunting stick” when they went hunting.

QWhen did people first use biotechnology in the food industry?

AEgyptian brewers, 2,000 years ago, used the yeast microorganism to ferment barley to produce beer.

QWhy did Africans domesticate cattle and donkeys, but not zebras?

AZebras are vicious and hard to lasso because they have good peripheral vision.

QWhat modern piece of office equipment helped foil a coup attempt in the Soviet Union in 1991?

AThe fax (facsimile) machine. People found out about the coup attempt through faxed information and activists filled the streets of Moscow until the takeover attempt collapsed.

QWhat change in agricultural organization in the early 20th century resulted in widespread hunger and starvation in the Soviet Union?

A Collectivization – forcing peasants to combine their land holdings into giant farms and farm as a group.

QHow did Henry Ford reduce the time needed to build a car from 12 hours and 8 minutes in 1908 to 1 hour and 33 minutes in 1914?

ABy creating the moving assembly line.

QWhere were tattoos first seen?

ATattooing was practiced throughout the Pacific and first written about by Captain Cook in the 1700s. Master craftsmen and their assistants in Polynesia tattooed men and women, using fine bone chisels with teeth, which they dipped into pigment and tapped into the skin with a light mallet. It was probably connected with initiation to adulthood, a sign that the individual could withstand pain.

SOURCE for Q and As: “Technology in World History,” W. Bernard Carlson, ed., Oxford University Press, 2005

Listen to Bernie Carlson discuss “Technology in World History” at


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