History of Science and Technology/history


good day
wanted to find out what are the top 3 to 5 periods in history excluding the last 200 to 250 years when high degrees of technological development occurred.
also what caused the industrial revolution to take place where it took place in that time period.

Hi Sam--thanks for your question! Let's see, excluding the past 250 or so years, I'd suggest four important periods of technological development in world history (though please bear in mind that I'm not an expert on anything outside Europe, or anything but the eighteenth century).  

First, let's have a look at the early Islamic world, where inventors and scholars created the first universities and hospitals, engineering mechanisms, medical innovations...and the first manned flight known to history!


This organisation has done a magnificent job of disseminating knowledge of this fascinating historical period:


Next, the early Middle Ages in Britain brought us the horsedrawn plough, windmills and water mills, and any number of agricultural and manufacturing improvements...and the second manned flight known to history!


Lynn White's book Medieval Technology and Social Change describes a few of these world-changing developments; though some of his book has since been shown to be incorrect, it still inspires generations of historians.

Our next stop is Ming Dynasty China, where an important cluster of agricultural and technological innovations led to the creation of Zheng He's fleet of exploring ships, a century before Europe's 'Age of Exploration':


My final choice barely escapes your time period—the Scientific Revolution of the early seventeenth century in Britain and northern Europe.  Galileo died the same year Isaac Newton was born; the life spans of these two men encompass an era of, I think, unprecedented concentration of genius in both the arts and sciences.

Honourable mention goes to ancient Greece—although only one of these has ever been discovered, it's clear the Antikythera mechanism, found in an undersea wreck in 1900 and constructed around the late second century BC, can't possibly have been the first or only one of its kind; it must be only a single sample of a highly developed technological craft tradition.


Why the Industrial Revolution happened when and where it did has been the subject of historical enquiry for generations.  Explanations include the size, location and types of coal deposits available to would-be inventors, the availability of inland navigation facilitating transport and communication, the unusually anarchic political and economic climate of the period after the Reformation, English Civil War and subsequent governmental upheavals, and the resources England had access to due to its ruthless exploitation of the people of other nations as well as its own.  This last point has a lot going for it, to be honest—John M. Hobson suggests that many, if not most, of the inventions the Industrial Revolution was based on were actually invented elsewhere, but more systematically deployed in England:


Karl Marx, among others, points out that the 'giant pool of money' invested in capital-intensive technologies came from the slave trade.  And, finally, although the Industrial Revolution is generally considered the result of technological innovation, it's more usefully viewed as the systematic exploitation of the newly-landless labour made available by the enclosure of common land through the eighteenth century.  The book 1066 and All That makes a joke out of this:

'The Industrial Revelation would never have occurred but for the wave of great mechanical Inventors, e.g. Arkwright, who invented the Spinning Jenny, or unmarried textile working girl.'

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Carolyn Dougherty


I can probably answer most general questions about the history of science, technology and engineering from ancient to current; if I don't know a specific answer I can probably refer a questioner to an appropriate source. I have done original research in the history of computing and in British science and engineering in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.


I am a PhD student at the University of York, writing about the carrying trade in the 18th century; my previous work at the university includes the early history of plate railways. I have taught courses in the history of science and engineering at York and other universities, and have presented several papers on various subjects in this field at academic conferences. I am also a practicing civil engineer.

BA--Berkeley, MSc--Berkeley, MA--York, currently working on a PhD at York.

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