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Over the course of our evolution we humans have developed tools and skills—technologies— using our most powerful resource, the brain. To understand history, we must know who possessed what technologies and how they used them. The history of technology is the history of power over nature and over people.
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Human beings cannot fly, or fight with their teeth and claws, or run, swim, or climb as handily as other animals. Instead, using our brains, we have devised tools and skills that have given us power over the natural world and permitted us to thrive almost everywhere on the planet. These tools and skills—in a word, technology—have also given some people power over others.
Before and During the Advent of Agriculture
Humans and their tools evolved symbiotically over millions of years. The hominid Australopithecines who lived in Africa from 4 to 2.5 million years ago used river cobbles as crude choppers to smash the bones of dead animals. Their descendents, members of the species Homo erectus, made hand axes by breaking flakes off both sides of a stone; they also learned how to control fire. With these tools, some hominids hunted big game while others gathered plants and insects. The size of their brains increased in tandem with their use of tools, while their teeth and jaws grew smaller.
The species Homo sapiens, humans like ourselves, appeared more than 150,000 years ago. They made a multitude of specialized tools, such as spear points, scrapers, and blades. Beginning 70,000 years ago, humans made clothing, houses, and oil lamps, as well as cave paintings, musical instruments, and decorative jewelry. With their advanced hunting and gathering equipment and skills, they migrated to previously uninhabited areas, such as Siberia and the Americas. They had boats of some sort, with which they crossed miles of open sea to reach New Guinea and Australia. They moved frequently in search of game and plant foods. Some 30,000 years ago, humans learned to sew clothing, using bone needles and sinew as thread, which allowed them to survive in formerly uninhabitable areas of the world like Siberia. Then, after 10,000 BCE, hunters began using bows and arrows to kill elusive and fast-moving game like deer and gazelles.
Permanent settlements coincide with the development of agriculture. Starting some 12,000 years ago, people in the Middle East began to harvest wild wheat and barley, and to help these plants grow by sowing seeds and clearing away weeds. To chop down trees, they made smooth-sided stone axes. By storing grains from one harvest to the next, they were able to stay in one place and build permanent houses; the first known settlement was Jericho, founded c. 7350 BCE. They also domesticated animals: first dogs, then sheep and goats, then pigs, donkeys, and cattle. Agriculture developed in China and Southeast Asia in the ninth millennium BCE, in Europe from the seventh millennium, in West Africa from the fourth, and in Mexico from the second millennium on. In the Americas, the process started later and took longer because there were fewer wild plants and animals that could be domesticated: corn, beans, and squash were the primary domesticated plants, and dogs, turkeys, guinea pigs, and llamas the primary domesticated animals. Other tools and skills that made possible agriculture and animal husbandry included digging sticks and hoes to prepare the ground, sickles to harvest grains, baskets and bins to hold crops, and fences to keep animals.
The shift to agriculture and animal husbandry took two thousand years, during which time people continued to hunt and gather wild foods. By growing and raising food, far more people could survive in a given area than was possible if they relied on the bounty of nature. Once their population grew, however, they could no longer return to their old lifestyle.
Hydraulic Civilizations (3500–1500 BCE)
As agriculture spread, people who lived on the banks of rivers, especially in hot dry regions, found that they could obtain phenomenal yields by watering their crops. To irrigate away from the riverbanks meant digging canals and constructing dikes. In the lower valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) the Sumerians (who arrived in the region between 4000 and 3500 BCE) organized large numbers of workers to carry out these public works projects. They used well-sweeps (a bucket at the end of a counterbalanced pole) to lift water from the canals to their fields. By the mid-fourth millennium BCE, the resulting food surpluses allowed their leaders to build cities, create governments and laws, and employ artisans, bureaucrats, soldiers, and merchants. In Mesopotamia, cities built ziggurats, multistory temples made of sun-dried bricks.
The same social revolution occurred in Egypt in the late fourth millennium, for the same reasons. Every year, the Nile River flooded the valley. To retain the water, farmers built dikes to enclose basins; once the soil was thoroughly soaked, the water was released to the next basin downstream. All of this required massive amounts of labor. During the off-season, farmers were recruited to build pyramids and temples.
Irrigation and water control were the key technologies of several other early civilizations. In northern China, civilization grew out of the need to protect the land from the dangerous floods of the Huang (Yellow) River. In the Valley of Mexico (central Mexico), farmers built raised fields called chinampas in shallows lakes by digging canals and heaping the rich mud on their plots. On the coastal plains of Peru, among the driest environments on Earth, farmers used the rivers that came down off the Andes to irrigate their fields. The people of Peru built cities with great walls of massive stones that fit together perfectly.
Early civilizations also developed other technologies. Women spun thread and wove cloth, some of exquisite beauty, out of flax in Egypt, wool in Mesopotamia and Peru, silk in China, and cotton in India and the Americas. Potters made pots for storage and cooking. Smiths learned to smelt metals from ores, first copper and later bronze, an alloy of copper and arsenic or tin. Wheeled carts were first used in Anatolia (now Turkey) and Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium, and spread from there to the rest of Eurasia.
Iron and Horses (1500 BCE–1500 CE)
The elites of first civilizations were very conservative, yet they could not prevent technological changes and the disruptions they caused. Among the many innovations that spread throughout the Eastern Hemisphere in the second millennium BCE, we can single out the two that had momentous consequences: the utilization of iron and the domestication of horses.
Iron, first smelted in Anatolia around 1500 BCE, required much more labor and fuel to make than bronze, but unlike copper and tin, its ores were found almost everywhere. Once blacksmiths learned to temper iron by repeated heating and quenching in water, it became hard enough to cut bronze. The low cost of iron made it possible to produce axes and saws for farmers and carpenters and knives and pots for household use.
Iron spread to the Middle East around 1000 BCE, and from there to Africa and India. Iron tools gave a tremendous advantage to those peoples who used them at the expense of nature and of people with less-developed technologies. Bantu-speaking people from the Nigeria-Cameroon region cleared wooded areas of central and southern Africa for agriculture and gradually pushed earlier inhabitants such as the Batwa (known by the pejorative term Pygmies), and San into forests and deserts not suitable for agriculture. In India, people with axes spread into the Ganges valley and the Deccan Plateau, turning forests into farmlands.
The Chinese created the most advanced iron industry. Not only did they make iron by hammering and tempering, like the peoples of Eurasia and Africa, they also invented bellows pumped by waterwheels that heated the furnace to the point at which the iron melted and could be poured into molds. As the deforestation of central and southern China proceeded, iron makers learned to heat their furnaces with coal. By the late first millennium CE, China was mass-producing iron tools, weapons, and household objects such as pots, pans, knives, and bells.
In the Middle East, meanwhile, blacksmiths learned to make “damascene” blades (after Damascus in Syria) by repeatedly heating a strip of iron in burning charcoal, hammering it thin and folding it over, until the iron turned to steel, becoming hard, sharp, and flexible. Such a process was extremely time-consuming and was used only for very costly swords.
Horses were first tamed in the third millennium BCE, but were of limited use until carpenters began building chariots with spoked wheels, pulled by two horses and carrying two men, one to drive the horses and the other armed with a bow and arrows. Charioteers from the grasslands to the north invaded the agrarian civilizations of the Middle East, India, and China, causing great havoc between 1700 and 1300 BCE. Chariots in turn were made obsolete around 1200 BCE when nomadic herdsmen learned how to shoot arrows while riding a horse. After about 1500 BCE, the agrarian states added cavalry and iron weapons to their infantry armies and established large empires of conquest. The Assyrians, Persians, and Romans in turn dominated Southwest Asia and the Mediterranean, while the Qin and Han dynasties controlled China. These empires, extending over thousands of miles, were held together by efficient road networks and postal services. The Romans were especially gifted at civil engineering; many of their roads, buildings, and aqueducts are still standing. However, nomadic herdsmen from the grasslands of Asia continued to increase in numbers and in military might, and periodically attacked the agrarian civilizations. For two thousand years, the history of Eurasia consisted in large part of the struggle between agrarian empires and nomadic herdsmen. For centuries after they were domesticated, horses could not be used in agriculture because the throat-and-girth harness caused them to choke and rear up if they had to pull a heavy load. The horse collar, which placed the load on their shoulders rather than their throats, first appeared in China in the third century BCE and reached Europe between the ninth and the eleventh centuries ce.
Advances in Agriculture (1500 BCE–1500 ce)
Agriculture was also transformed during this period. As Han Chinese moved from northern China into the tropical Yangzi (Chang) River valley and the south, they perfected the art of water management. Rice grows best in warm shallow ponds, but requires very careful terracing, plowing, planting, weeding, water control, and harvesting, most of which had to be done by human labor. In addition to rice, Chinese farmers also grew tea bushes and mulberry trees, whose leaves fed the silkworms for the silk industry. In return for more intensive labor inputs, the land produced ever more abundant yields per acre. As its population grew, China became the wealthiest and technologically most advanced civilization in the world, producing such innovations as paper, printing, paper money, and (later) the compass, oceangoing ships, and gunpowder.
A different kind of agricultural and technological revolution occurred in the Middle East from the seventh to the fifteenth centuries. The Arabs, a desert people, had domesticated the camel for use in regions too dry for horses. In the seventh century, they conquered the Middle East and North Africa. With a long tradition of trade, they welcomed and protected merchants and sailors. They rebuilt the irrigation works of Egypt and Mesopotamia and introduced several useful devices such as the saqiya (a chain of buckets) and the qanat, or underground tunnel, to carry water over long distances. They also introduced citrus fruits from China and sugar and cotton from India to the Mediterranean world.
European agriculture lagged far behind agriculture in China and the Middle East, especially after the collapse of the Roman Empire after the fifth century. Yet Europeans created several ingenious innovations that allowed them to populate the western and northern portions of the continent, which the Romans had found uninhabitable. One was the three-field rotation system, whereby fields lay fallow one year out of three, instead of every other year as in earlier times, resulting in a 50 percent increase in productivity. Another was the iron horseshoe, which prevented horses’ hooves from wearing out in wet weather. A third was the horse collar, which allowed a horse to pull much heavier loads than the throat strap used by the Romans. Europeans were also quick to adopt water wheels and windmills as sources of energy to grind grain, saw lumber, crush ores, and accomplish other tasks. While the yields per hectare in Europe in this period could not compare with those in China or the Middle East, the result of these innovations was to make the yields per person the highest in the world.
Technologies of Global Interaction
Ocean-going ships carried not only men and trade goods, but also animals and plants from one place to another. Domesticated plants and animals have been essential technologies since the Neolithic, requiring knowledge and skills to grow or breed them and to transform them into foods and fibers. From the beginning of agriculture, plants and animals had been transferred within the Eastern Hemisphere and also, with more difficulty, within the Americas. The voyages of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries allowed transfers between the Old World and the New. The Europeans brought with them wheat, rice, sugar, and cotton, along with many fruits, vegetables, and trees. From the Americas they returned with corn, potatoes, and tobacco, among others. The Portuguese transferred cassava (manioc) from Brazil to Africa and Indonesia.
Europeans also brought their animals with them wherever they went. Pigs and cattle ran wild in the Americas. Horses were used by Europeans and by the Plains Indians of North America. The New World had almost no animals to offer in exchange, however. Introduced crops and animals increased the food supply and contributed to the rise in population around the world. In the process, they accelerated the transformation of local environments and the destruction of native plants and animals. In the fifteenth century, improvements in ships and navigation led to the diffusion of other technologies around the globe. Let us consider two important technologies with global repercussions: navigation and gunpowder.
People had long navigated on rivers and lakes and along seacoasts. Humans reached New Guinea and Australia tens of thousands of years ago. Malay people from Southeast Asia migrated to Indonesia and reached Micronesia and New Caledonia by 2000 BCE. Others crossed the Indian Ocean to Madagascar. They learned to navigate by observing the stars, the sun, and the moon and by feeling the ocean swells. Gradually, they ventured out into the Pacific Ocean in dugout canoes equipped with outriggers and triangular “crab-claw” sails, finally reaching Hawaii and New Zealand. The peoples living along the Mediterranean Sea, by contrast, did not develop oceangoing vessels. Their cargo ships were broad-beamed with a square sail and could sail only in good weather and preferably with the wind. Their warships were propelled by oarsmen and were designed to ram and board enemy ships. Neither was suited to travel on the Atlantic.
The Indian Ocean lends itself to regular navigation because of the monsoons that blow toward Asia in the late summer and autumn and away from that continent in the winter and spring. In the early centuries of the common era, Arabs, Persians, and Indians built dhows, small sailing ships made of teak planks sewn together with coconut fibers with a lateen, or triangular sail, that could sail at an angle to the wind. The prosperity of the Indian Ocean trade was the envy of both Chinese and Europeans.
Beginning in the Song dynasty (960–1279), the Chinese developed a kind of ship called a junk, with a flat bottom, bamboo sails, and a sternpost rudder. Captains were equipped with magnetic compasses and charts of the waters they sailed in. Between 1405 and 1433, the Chinese government sent seven expeditions to the Indian Ocean. The first included 317 ships, some of which were 120 meters long and 48 meters wide. With the largest ships and the most powerful fleet in the world, the Chinese could have explored all the oceans of the world. But when warfare with nomadic tribes from Mongolia absorbed the government’s resources and attention, the government ended the expeditions and prohibited ocean navigation.
Meanwhile, Europeans were becoming more adept at navigation. By combining the best features of the Mediterranean oared galleys and the round-hulled sailing ships of the North Sea, the Portuguese created a ship called a caravel that had both square and lateen sails and a sternpost rudder, and that could be sailed in any wind with a small crew. During the fifteenth century, they figured out the wind patterns of the Atlantic. With such ships and knowledge Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) crossed the Atlantic in 1492, and Vasco da Gama (1460–1524) reached India six years later.
Gunpowder was first used in China in the thirteenth century for flame throwers and fireworks. In the fourteenth century, Europeans and Turks began casting large cannon that could hurl iron cannonballs and destroy the walls of fortified cities. Artillery gave a great advantage to centralized states like those of the Ottoman Turks, the Mughals in India, and the czars of Russia. Western Europeans were the first to build smaller naval cannon and ships strong enough to withstand the recoil of guns in battle, and with these they quickly dominated the Indian Ocean and the waters off East and Southeast Asia.
The Industrial Age (1750–1950)
Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, a new set of technologies, which we call industrial, began to transform the world. Industrialization had five defining characteristics: an increased division of labor; the mechanization of production and transportation; energy from fossil fuels; mass production of goods and services; and the diffusion of practical knowledge. Each of these had been tried in various places before— for example, books were mass produced from the sixteenth century on—but it is the combination of all five that defined true industrialization.
Industrialization began with the British cotton textile industry, which used machines powered by flowing streams to produce cloth in large quantities at low cost. At the same time, abundant coal was used to produce cheap iron. The most spectacular invention of the eighteenth century, and the one that distinguished the British industrial revolution from all previous periods of rapid change, was the steam engine, improved by the condenser James Watt (1736–1819) patented in 1769. By the mid-nineteenth century, steam engines were used to pump water, turn machines, and power locomotives and ships.
The new industrial technologies spread to other countries, but very unevenly. Western Europe and northeastern North America soon followed Britain’s lead, but the rest of Europe and Russia lagged behind until the late nineteenth century. India and Latin America imported machines and technicians, but not the engineering culture that would have lessened their dependence on the industrial nations. Of all the non- Western nations, only Japan began industrializing before 1900.
Meanwhile, a second wave of industrial technologies appeared in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mainly from Germany and the United States. Inventors found ways of mass-producing steel—formerly a rare and costly metal—at a cost so low that it could be used to build bridges and buildings and even thrown away after use. The German chemical industry, founded to produce synthetic dyestuffs, expanded into fertilizers, explosives, and numerous other products. Electricity from batteries has been used since the 1830s to transmit messages by telegraph, but after 1860 generators and dynamos produced powerful currents that could be used for many other purposes. In 1878, Thomas Edison (1847–1931) invented not only the incandescent light bulb, but also the generating stations and distribution networks that made electricity useful for lighting and later for electric motors, streetcars, and other applications. In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi (1874– 1937) created the first wireless telegraph, the ancestor of radio.
The beginning of the twentieth century saw the introduction of two other technologies that revolutionized life in the industrial countries and, later, in the rest of the world. In 1886 Karl Benz (1844–1929) and Gottlieb Daimler (1834–1900) put an internal combustion engine on a “horseless carriage.” In 1913 Henry Ford (1863– 1947) began building his Model T on an assembly line, making cars so inexpensive that even workers could afford them. By the 1920s, automobiles were common in the United States. After the mid-century, they became common in Europe as well.
The other revolutionary invention was the airplane. The brothers Wilbur (1867–1912) and Orville (1871– 1948) Wright were the first to fly in 1903. They were soon followed by others on both sides of the Atlantic. From the 1950s onward, flying became a common means of transportation around the world.
In peacetime, mass production meant mass consumption of cotton clothes, railroad transportation, automobiles, and other consumer items. But industrial production also made possible mass destruction in two widespread and murderous World Wars and in the annihilation of entire populations. Yet even after the most destructive wars in history, the nations that had suffered the heaviest damage—Russia, Germany, and Japan—were able to rebuild remarkably quickly. Industrialization spread more slowly to South Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, and has not yet begun in earnest in most of Africa. The industrial world is still an exclusive club.
The Postindustrial World
Postindustrial does not mean that industry is disappearing; on the contrary, there is more industry producing more products than ever before. Yet we are clearly in the midst of another technological revolution, as dramatic—but much faster—than the agricultural and industrial revolutions that preceded it.
The new revolution involves many technologies that can trace their origins to World War II. In that war, governments understood that their hope of victory rested on developing new weapons and other military technologies. Such research programs were extremely costly, yet invention proceeded at an accelerated pace that would not have been possible if governments had relied on private enterprise. This realization led governments to continue funding research long after the war was over.
The most dramatic invention of the war was the atom bomb, built by the United States between 1942 and 1945. After the war, the Soviet Union also built atom bombs, which were followed in the 1950s by the far more powerful hydrogen bomb. Nuclear energy was not limited to bombs. Nuclear reactors were harnessed to produce electricity and to power submarines and other ships.
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. The rocket that hoisted it into orbit was based on the V-2 missile built by Germany during the war. Sputnik was the precursor of thousands of satellites put into space for espionage and surveillance, television broadcasting, and telecommunications. The most spectacular event of the space age was the Moon landing of 1969, proof of humankind’s growing power over the natural world.
Future historians will no doubt consider the new electronic technologies even more revolutionary than nuclear and rocket technology. Television, still experimental before the war, became a consumer item in the 1950s in the United States and in the 1960s in Europe and Japan. Radar, developed during the war for military purposes, later served civilian aviation, navigation, and law enforcement. Computers, also invented during the war, became important business tools with IBM’s System 360 in 1964 used in the banking, insurance, and retail industries, among others. Apple made the first popular personal computers in the late 1970s, but was soon overshadowed by IBM and a host of smaller companies that purchased operating systems and programs from the giant of the software industry, Microsoft. In the mid-1980s, the Internet began linking computer networks around the world. The World Wide Web, introduced in 1991, made it possible to send images as well as text, and made the Internet so user-friendly that companies soon used it to advertise and sell their products. Most computer hardware and software originated in the United States, but the manufacture and marketing of consumer electronics was dominated by Japanese companies.
Biotechnology is another area that has seen rapid technological development. In 1953, James Crick and Francis Watson discovered DNA, the substance that encodes all the information needed to create living beings. Their findings promised advances in medicine, agriculture, and other fields. In the 1970s, agronomists created more productive hybrids of rice, wheat, corn, and other crops: the Green Revolution. Since the mid-1990s, genetically modified organisms have confronted nations and their farmers and consumers with a controversial trade-off between present benefits and future risks.
Technology and the Future
The power of humans over nature has increased at an accelerating rate. Now humans are capable of extraordinary achievements, but also extraordinary damage to one another and to the planet. Advances in computers and communications will soon offer those who can afford them instant access to every text, film, or piece of music, and will enable powerful governments to track every vehicle and perhaps every person on Earth. Nuclear power has the potential to replace fossil fuels, but its exploitation also makes possible the creation of dangerous weapons, which may fall into the hands of desperate individuals. Biotechnology promises better health but also the manipulation of all forms of life in ways never imagined; cloning in particular is a headline-grabbing new technology fraught with difficult social and moral implications. These technologies and others not yet imagined are double-edged swords for those who possess them. Meanwhile, those who have no access to modern technologies—half or more of humankind—are no better off than they were a thousand years ago.
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