history - Chapter 3 Episodes from History The history of...

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Unformatted text preview: Chapter 3 Episodes from History The history of engineering is longer than the history of the human race. Our species, homo sapiens , has existed for about 35,000 years. Our ancestors began using stone tools almost a million years ago. Our knowledge of these early technologies is fragmentary; we know about stone tools and pots; if there were wooden tools or woven baskets, they have long since rotted to dust. One thing that does strike us about ancient technology is how slow it was to progress. Hundreds of thousands of years separate the Abbevillean stone core tools from the stone blade tools of the Upper Paleolithic. Why so slow? One suggestion, made by the historian Lewis Mumford, is that humanity was not idle during this interval, but was developing a set of tools more powerful than stone axes – patterns of culture, and, most importantly, language. These developments, Mumford says, were and remain more important than any physical devices, but are unacknowledged by conventional historians because of the impossibility of reconstructing them from the archaeological record. 1 2 CHAPTER 3. EPISODES FROM HISTORY There are other reasons for slow development: subsistence-level communities tend to be conservative, for several reasons. One reason is size – there are only a few people, so there will only be a few ideas. Communication between groups is poor, so there is no cross-fertilization of ideas. Experimenting with new ways requires surplus resources: one or more individuals must have leisure to do the experiment, and the group must find the materials to be used in the experiment. Perhaps more important, conservatism is safe – if the group has survived thus far, it must be doing things right. Any change involves risk, and most changes will be deleterious. What can force the group to innovate? Change imposed from the outside: a change in climate, for example. The most powerful impetus to change comes when a uniquely deadly threat appears from the outside: another group of humans, with unfamiliar weapons. A society armed with sticks and stones cannot fight invaders in bronze armour and swords; bronze armour can be sliced like cardboard by an iron sword. Here is a powerful incentive to innovate: the group that does not innovate will be at the mercy of the group that does. In examining engineering history, there is a continual temptation to his- toricism , the belief that there exist laws of historical development that can predict the course of history. The most notorious historicists of the past were Hegel, who believed in a dialectical process of thesis and antithesis leading to the Prussian state he lived in, and Marx, whose theory of dialectical material- ism held that there were immutable laws of historical development leading us through capitalism to som and eventually to communism. The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov has envisioned the future existence of a science of psychohistory, which would permit calculation of future events. Both of thesepsychohistory, which would permit calculation of future events....
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history - Chapter 3 Episodes from History The history of...

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