A Culture of Improvement Technology and the Western Millennium

Format: Paperback
Pub. Date: 2010-02-26
Publisher(s): The MIT Press
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Finalist, 2008 Henry Paolucci / Walter Bagehot Book Award given by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Why does technology change over time, how does it change, and what difference does it make? In this sweeping, ambitious look at a thousand years of Western experience, Robert Friedel argues that technological change comes largely through the pursuit of improvement-the deep-rooted belief that things could be done in a better way. What Friedel calls the "culture of improvement" is manifested every day in the ways people carry out their tasks in life-from tilling fields and raising children to waging war. Improvements can be ephemeral or lasting, and one person's improvement may not always be viewed as such by others. Friedel stresses the social processes by which we define what improvements are and decide which improvements will last and which will not. These processes, he emphasizes, have created both winners and losers in history. Friedel presents a series of narratives of Western technology that begin in the eleventh century and stretch into the twenty-first. Familiar figures from the history of invention are joined by others-the Italian preacher who described the first eyeglasses, the dairywomen displaced from their control over cheesemaking, and the little-known engineer who first suggested a grand tower to Gustav Eiffel. Friedel traces technology from the plow and the printing press to the internal combustion engine, the transistor, and the space shuttle. Friedel also reminds us that faith in improvement can sometimes have horrific consequences: improved weaponry makes warfare ever more deadly and the drive for improving human beings can lead to eugenics and even genocide. The most comprehensive attempt to tell the story of Western technology in many years, engagingly written and lavishly illustrated, A Culture of Improvementdocuments the ways in which the drive for improvement has shaped our modern world.

Author Biography

Robert Friedel is Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland. He is the author of Pioneer Plastic: The Making and Selling of Celluloid, Edison's Electric Light, and Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. vii
Technology and Improvementp. 1
Plows and Horsep. 13
Powerp. 31
Buildings for God and Manp. 49
Transforming Matterp. 71
Light and Timep. 91
Types of Changep. 113
Earth, Fire, Water, and Airp. 129
Improving Knowledgep. 149
Improvers and Engineersp. 171
Raising Firep. 191
Fabrics of Changep. 211
Artisans, Philosophes, and Entrepreneursp. 235
Airs and Lightningp. 255
Mobilityp. 275
Messagesp. 295
Engineering Emergesp. 319
Stuff, Reality, and Dreamsp. 341
The Improvement of Violencep. 363
Learningp. 385
Dynamicsp. 401
Land and Lifep. 429
Scalep. 449
The Corruption of Improvementp. 479
Networksp. 503
Improvement's Endp. 527
Notesp. 545
Indexp. 569
Table of Contents provided by Publisher. All Rights Reserved.

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