World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format          

Book Review


Daniel R. Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850-1940 (Oxford University Press 1988), pp. 416, $26.95.

     One of the issues that teachers and students of history must address is the hegemony of the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This issue is similar to one explored by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (W.W. Norton & Co., 1999) regarding the dominance of Eurasia by 1500 C.E. To put it simply, what allows one region to become dominant over others? In The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850-1940, Daniel R. Headrick explores the technological reasons for the economic and political dominance of the West over the tropical regions in the modern period. 1
     Thankfully, as world historians we no longer rely on the nineteenth century view that social evolution should ineluctably move all societies toward the "perfection"of Western European civilization. That said, how do we explain the century-long delay in industrialization in countries under Western domination? If one of the justifications for 19th century imperialism was to spread Western technology to the rest of the world and to promote "progress," what happened? Why did traditional economies fail to become industrial economies based on European technology and instead became "modern undeveloped ones"(p. 4)? Headrick, who focuses primarily on India and Africa, notes that while tropical economies grew, they did not develop. This "reversed the age-old pattern of world trade in which the Western peoples craved the goods of the East, but had little but bullion to offer in exchange" (p. 7). Instead, from the middle of the nineteenth century tropical countries were forced into the role of supplying cash crops and raw materials to Western markets and importing Western manufactured goods. 2
     Why did technological knowledge and techniques fail to be transferred to areas controlled by the West? Among other things, Headrick argues, the technological gap between European and tropical countries following the second industrial revolution was just too great, so that the "gap between preindustrial crafts and industrial technology had grown so wide that the traditional skills were useless in the process of modernizing" (p. 11). Illiteracy also hindered the transfer of complex machine tools and chemical processes. In addition, since modern industrial machinery is much more complex and expensive than pre-industrial revolution technology, the start-up costs to create a factory were much higher by the late nineteenth century than they were earlier in the century. "In other words," Headrick notes, "as time goes on, underdevelopment make[s] industrialization increasingly difficult" (11). As a result, long-standing technologies (such as the manufacture of cotton cloth in India) were replaced by Western industrial products, so that local people had to rely on the West for items they once produced themselves. 3
     More importantly, Western European powers controlled the means of transportation (such as steamships and railroads) and communication (such as the telegraph and the wireless). Roads, for example, were built to carry raw materials and resources from their point of origin to the nearest port to be collected and shipped to Europe--not so that they might directly benefit indigenous peoples. New technologies of transportation and communication allowed the Western powers to penetrate into and control ever larger segments of the world and to control the world economy in a way never before possible. 4
     Tentacles of Progress is one of those books that can be used in many ways in a world history curriculum. It is a popular summer reading assignment, allowing students to mull over the various chapters at a leisurely pace instead of trying to read it alongside a full reading load during the school year. It can also be used as reading during either Winter or Spring break, closer to the point in the curriculum where the book is applicable. 5
     It is also possible to tailor the reading to meet more specific classroom needs, such as to elaborate on particular themes or regions. For example, one might ask students to read the first chapter and the conclusion, which provide the overview of Headrickâs argument. Then one could select the sections that are most relevant to the particular course in question. For example, chapter 7, "Economic Botany and Tropical Plantations," makes an excellent follow-up to work on the Columbian Exchange in the 1450-1750 period. The chapter examines in depth cinchona, sugar cane, and rubber in the British, French, and Dutch Empires. Other possibilities include following different geographical regions through the topics of the chapters: for example, Indian telegraphs (chapter 4), irrigation systems ("hydraulic imperialism," chapter 6), iron and steel production (chapters 8 & 10), technical education and politics (chapter 9), cotton mills and shipbuilding (chapter 10). Similar threads can be pulled out for Egypt, sub-Saharan African, or Malaya and Indonesia. 6
     Finally, Tentacles lends itself to preparation for questions regarding both change over time and regional comparisons. In both cases, students are forced to think in terms of causality and world systems. Given one chapter as a hand-out, students can compare, for example, the "Hydraulic Imperialism" in India and Egypt (chapter 6) or technical education in Egypt, West Africa, and India (chapter 9). Since Tentacles covers the last two AP chronological periods (1750-1914 and 1914 to the present), 'change over time' topics can also be developed for the AP history class with relative ease, such as exploring the European take-over of mining tin in Malaysia and copper in central Africa. 7
     However a teacher uses Tentacles of Progress, it is clearly a classic global approach to a long-standing set of questions, and deserves a place as one of the standards for the "new" world history classroom. 8
Ryba Epstein
Rich East High School
Park Forest, IL

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2003 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

World History Connected (ISSN 1931-8642)

Terms and Conditions of Use