Dial on Pacey and Bray, 'Technology in World Civilization: A Thousand-Year History (Revised and Expanded Edition)'

Arnold Pacey, Francesca Bray
Burke H. Dial

Arnold Pacey, Francesca Bray. Technology in World Civilization: A Thousand-Year History (Revised and Expanded Edition). Cambridge: MIT Press, 2021. 356 pp. $28.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-262-36629-8.

Reviewed by Burke H. Dial (University of South Carolina) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (May, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57555

A Synoptic History of Technological Innovation and Dialogue

In 1990, Arnold Pacey introduced the concept of a technological dialogue to explain the ways different societies utilized new technologies. For Pacey, the idea of a simple, undemanding transfer of technology from more advanced to less advanced societies was naive and reinforced outdated notions of less sophisticated cultures as passive recipients of Western technologies. Instead, he argued that recipients engaged with received technologies, altering and tailoring them to their own peculiar political, cultural, or geographical circumstances. This complex process of interaction, alteration, and adaptation defined Pacey’s notion of a technological “dialogue” (or dialectic), and it remains the organizing theme of this new edition.

Arnold Pacey and Francesca Bray have revised and updated his 1990 synoptic history, Technology in World Civilization: A Thousand-Year History. Drawing primarily on secondary sources, the authors describe the numerous ways that local circumstances effect changes in various technologies. Using the notion of technological dialogue, they expand the older, narrower (and often Eurocentric) metanarrative of “technology transfer.” Technological dialogue becomes their metaphor for a dynamic process of alterations, adaptations, and reciprocal interchanges among producers and recipients. By highlighting the ability of recipients to refashion technology, they present a more balanced image of technological exchange than does the top-down concept of technology transfer.

The chronological narrative is presented in a dozen chapters. The first examines developments across Asia from 700 to 100 CE. While China developed sophisticated technologies such as smelting, canals, and agricultural equipment, Islamic societies in western Asia adapted ancient technical and mathematical knowledge to their needs by translating Greek, Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman texts into Arabic. Muslim engineers and surveyors needed technological knowledge to repair older canals, waterwheels, and windmills in the lands they had conquered. Their adaptation and alteration of ancient texts led, for example, to “the system of numerals we use today based on nine digits and a zero[, which] must be accounted one of the greatest inventions of all time” (p. 10). At the same time, Chinese, Indian, and Arabic shipwrights modified each other’s use of woods, joining materials, and sails to suit their own regions and waters. Instead of a simple transfer of technology from one to another, there was an interactive, technological dialogue as different cultures adapted shared technologies to best fit their needs and their environments.

Technological dialogue is the leitmotif of the thousand-year narrative, and it is applied to printing, hydraulic engineering, spinning, textiles, and weapons in the earlier periods. The interactions of Mongols and other nomadic tribes with more settled and politically centralized societies were crucial to this dialogue in Asia. China developed gunpowder weapons in the tenth century, a technology that traveled west to Islam and Europe when Mongol armies used trebuchets to hurl gunpowder bombs in their conquest of Baghdad in 1258. However, because they focused on the technology of the mounted archer, the Mongols were less successful in this gunpowder dialogue and fell behind China and Europe in the development of cannons.

The fourteenth century became a major turning point in the technological dialogue as population losses from the Black Death impelled Europeans to increasingly adopt labor-saving technologies. And in the fifteenth century, the Portuguese developed the highly maneuverable caravel in order to sail close to the wind. Its ability to cross oceans triggered the Age of Discovery and the Columbian Exchange. The latter led to a transcontinental dialogue and the European adoption of numerous New World technologies such as crops and medicines: potatoes, tomatoes, sarsaparilla, tobacco, chinchona (Jesuits’) bark, and others.

The fifth chapter looks at the gunpowder empires and how different technological dialogues produced cannons and firearms. The authors extend the discussion to the development of Damascus steel, the astrolabe, Persian qanats, and Japanese muskets. Chapter 6 deals with printing, books, and ideas in the early modern period, 1550 to 1750, when Europeans began to surpass other cultures in the development of science and technology. Most important was the rapid adoption of printing, science, and technology by Europeans. It led to the Western development of abstract thought “expressed in drawings, tables of figures, and printed books … [and to] the great preponderance of new technological potential, generated by increased ability to conceptualize technical problems [that] was accruing in the West” (p. 117).

Three chapters focus on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrialization, railway development, and the development of the steam engine. The authors note that Indian textiles and shipbuilding were beginning the process of industrialization before the British conquest, but under the British Raj, India was “deindustrialized.” Technological dialogue and innovation were suppressed. India became a colony, a source of raw materials and consumers for British goods. Chapters 10 and 11 focus on modern, scientific technologies including electricity, chemistry, public health, agroforestry, the green revolution, and nuclear energy.

The final chapter brings the narrative into the twenty-first century with a discussion of semiconductors, solar energy, and global warming. The authors caution that earlier, innovative technologies such as “coal-fired electricity generation, the internal combustion engine, aviation, and air travel—are now seen as having a deeply negative effect” on the climate (p. 260). We need to respond to the challenge of global warming “with the same enthusiasm as space exploration and the same resources as a Manhattan Project” (p. 261).

Technology in World Civilization is a short and eminently readable history by two noted scholars. Its scope is broad and its depth is shallow, as befits a synoptic history, but, used as a text for a university course, each chapter could be reinforced by supplementary readings to focus on certain topics in more depth. As such, it could easily provide the framework for a semester’s worth of discussions dealing with a thousand years of global technological development. Moreover, its substitution of “technology dialogue” for “technology transfer” sets the stage for discussions of changes in the historiography of technological development.

Citation: Burke H. Dial. Review of Pacey, Arnold; Bray, Francesca, Technology in World Civilization: A Thousand-Year History (Revised and Expanded Edition). H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. May, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57555

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