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Book Review


Daniel R. Headrick, Technology: A World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. ix+179. $19.95 (paperback)


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     In the preface, editors Bonnie G. Smith and Anand Yang state that the New Oxford World History series "presents local histories through a global context and gives an overview of world events seen through the eyes of ordinary people" (ix). In regards to the volume on the history of technology, Smith and Yang sought a book that could emphasize both the positive and negative facets of technology; technology has increased the world's food supply, extended life, and alleviated suffering, but at the same time increased the capacity of humans to kill and dominate each other as well as destroy the environment. In addition to showing the benefits and disadvantages of technology, the volume needed to avoid both the "old" Eurocentric approach, as well as the revisionist approach that specifically excluded the West, favoring instead an approach that explained history "from the vantage of the moon" (viii). It had to cover a span from prehistory to the present day, devote accurate attention to all continents, show the interaction between cultures, and remain under 200 pages. Impossible? Not for Daniel R. Headrick, who not only fulfills all of the editors' requirements, but does so with a superb writing style that makes Technology: A World History accessible to almost any reader.

     Headrick succeeds in treating the various nations and continents of the world as co-participants in a global narrative and avoids any kind of favoritism. He also devotes equal time to the various areas of technology (military, agricultural, social, industrial, etc.) and shows the interplay between them. Beginning with the use of tools by Australopithecines millions of years ago and carrying his narrative through to cloning and the Internet, Headrick's scope and context acknowledge both geographic and cultural factors in the development and diffusion of technology. In the first chapter, Headrick covers the earliest use of tools and the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to sedentary agriculture, which in turn led to larger populations competing for land, often exploding into warfare.

     Next, Headrick describes the development of bureaucracy, as agricultural societies sought to harness and efficiently organize water resources to maximize agricultural production and feed an ever-growing population. In addition to sustaining larger populations, irrigation provided the surplus necessary to sustain specialists that could devote time to other skills and pursuits like metallurgy, pottery, weaving and religious duties. The result was "civilization," which Headrick defines as "large scale societies whose members contribute taxes, labor or tribute to the state and pay homage to their leaders" (17). Thus technology and civilization not only allowed humans to dominate nature, but allowed small bands of elites to dominate larger populations. This is one of the central themes in the book.

     Following his discussion of the establishment of civilization, Headrick traces how those tribes and groups in the cradles of civilization used technology, most notably iron and horses, to establish the first empires. The next chapter illustrates how that acceleration manifests itself differently throughout the world. Geography dictated which global regions became "cradles of civilization," but culture took that development in different directions. The chapter also examines the first interactions between different civilizations, with China and the Middle East emerging as leaders in possessing and developing technology.

     Headrick's next chapter focuses on the "Age of Exploration" and the increase in interaction between regions of the world. Maritime technology played the most important role in facilitating communication, followed closely by firearms, crops and printing. Though Asia and the Middle East benefitted from these technologies as they increased trade, communication, diet, and political borders, it was Europe that used them to expand across the globe and surpass societies of Asia and the Levant as the leaders in technological development. The industrial revolution then completed what the Age of Exploration had begun, making Europe the economic and political hegemon of the world at the expense of almost everyone else and at increasing cost to the environment.

     Following the industrial revolution, Headrick traces what he calls "The Acceleration of Change," encompassing the developments in transportation, communication and sources of energy that are often referred to as the "second industrial revolution." He also points out how technological development itself underwent dramatic change. Invention and improvement required increasingly specialized knowledge of chemistry and physics, leading to the creation of corporate laboratories and shifting university education away from a classical emphasis to a more pragmatic one. The end result was that humans could now direct technological development and produce breakthroughs, as Headrick states, "on demand." The final chapter covers the latter half of the twentieth century and Headrick suggests that it is still too early to come to a definitive analysis of the impact of rocketry, nuclear power, and the Internet, but like all technologies before, the technology of the modern age has provided amazing benefits and horrible consequences.

     In addition to addressing the nuts-and-bolts of his narrative, Headrick also introduces broader themes that are crucial to understanding the history of technology. First, Headrick points out that technology does not necessarily equal progress; technological innovation sometimes causes harmful unforeseen consequences and is often beneficial to one group only because it is detrimental to another. Second, and closely tied to the first, technology is fickle. New technologies often enable a small elite, ranging from individual kings to European empires, to dominate larger populations, but technology can likewise become the means by which the elite can be overthrown. Third, Headrick demonstrates how technology develops exponentially. The first three of his eight chapters each cover a thousand or more years of history, while the last three chapters cover 250 years between them. Fourth, technological development cannot be ranked in a linear fashion and nations cannot be labeled as either "advanced" or "primitive." Instead, cultural and geographic context play an essential role in understanding the development of technology and level of civilization. The Aztecs, for example, were not "backward" simply because they did not have the wheel. The landscape and culture of the Aztec empire was not conducive to the development of such technology and its absence did not prevent the Aztecs from establishing their impressive empire.

     Despite all its advantages, there are some criticisms that can be leveled at Headrick's work. Headrick says nothing about stem cell research when discussing biotechnological advances. He mentions DNA and cloning, but not stem cells, instead simply stating that, "the genetic manipulation of human life still lies in the future" (145). In another instance, Headrick discusses convergence, the ability of combining multiple tasks and technologies into a single machine, but fails to mention specific examples like iPods, iPads, or Blackberries. Throughout the book, Headrick always provided specific examples, but sadly not in these cases. Next, Headrick's condemnation of nuclear power is too critical. Headrick acknowledges the benefits of the cheap, clean and efficient energy produced by nuclear reactors, but ultimately calls dismisses this technology as "disappointing," based on five cases that, though infamous (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, etc.), represent only one percent of all nuclear reactors in use. He also calls nuclear power "the costliest technological failure in the world," without adequately comparing short and long-term costs of accidents involving traditional sources of energy" (136). Another critique is the failure of exploring YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites that have taken the Internet to new heights as a tool of communication and global interaction. For a series that wants to be both "global," but told "through the eyes of ordinary people," this is a rather significant oversight. Lastly, Headrick's closing thought, that "Technology is no longer a means of survival in the face of a hostile nature but a joyride at the expense of nature," sounds too much like it came out of the 1960s. He never states explicitly when this transition took place, nor does he make an exception for parts of the world in which technology is still utilized in the "struggle for survival." Throughout the book he has shown that technology has positive and negative effects, but this statement casts a decidedly negative shadow on all technology from the industrial revolution onward and introduces the revisionist slant that was rejected in the preface.

     Nevertheless, even with these drawbacks, Headrick has produced a succinct but complete survey of the history of technology in a global context, which, when combined with his style, makes the book very accessible. It is clear enough to be used in high school and undergraduate courses, but at the same time, includes sufficient detail to make the book a useful tool for graduate students preparing for comprehensive exams and for professors to use in lecture preparation.

Chris Thomas is a doctoral candidate at Texas A&M University where he is completing his dissertation on Freemasonry in the Third Reich. He can be reached at


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