Primer: Technology

Francesca Bray
Gold sculpture of a bird with it's head turned backwards


Technology, broadly defined, denotes not only transformative innovations but the whole spectrum of tools, skills and artifacts with which human societies construct their worlds. The impact of technology is symbolic and social as well as material: artifacts have meaning; ways of making and doing embody beliefs and values, identities and relationships. Viewed as a nexus of material, cultural and political elements, technology offers a rewarding analytical prism for enriching world history. One important contribution of recent research in the field is to people the global map with technological actors and ideas beyond the narrow sphere of Europe, conventionally viewed as the crucible of technological creativity. Another is to decenter the West by highlighting the historical significance of south-south relations. Most important, an approach “on their own terms” to past technological landscapes and cultures can expand our technological imaginations, better equipping us to meet the technogenic challenges that face the world today.


Most people today identify technology with cutting-edge innovations that transform human capabilities and thus bring historical progress. Recently this positive narrative has been undermined by concerns about technology’s role in triggering the accelerating environmental degradation of the Anthropocene (McNeill, The Great Acceleration). More broadly defined, however, technology denotes the whole spectrum of tools and skills with which human societies construct their worlds, and the artifacts that result from these processes – cell-phones or bread, grindstones, temple irrigation systems or assembly lines. The impact of technology is symbolic and social as well as material: artifacts have meaning; ways of making and doing embody beliefs and values, identities and relationships. As a nexus of material, cultural and political elements, technologies offer excellent opportunities for the multi-dimensional investigations of movements, exchanges and entanglements that interest world historians.

In considering how technologies evolved over time, shaped and were shaped by societies and encounters between them, and moved (or failed to move) around the world, it can be helpful to think in terms of two mutually constitutive concepts. The first is technological landscapes – the repertoires of skilled material practices and artifacts that societies or social groups build to produce food, shelter and clothing; to communicate; to control; to distinguish rank and gender, native and foreign, civilized and uncouth; to worship, fight or trade. The second concept is technological cultures – which technologies are judged significant and why, which are considered of minor importance or simply not noticed; ideas about the forces mobilized by technological activities of various kinds and about what constitutes efficacy; and views about how, whether and to what ends technologies should or should not be used, the nature of their effects, and their political, moral or metaphysical significance. As heuristics, these twin concepts can help us integrate technology productively into world history without projecting modern values and preconceptions onto the past (Bray, “Flows and Matrices, Landscapes and Cultures”; El Hariry, “On Our Own Terms”).

For many years the most influential narratives about technology in world history were structured around the rise of the West. Defining technological significance as transformative innovations that increased factor productivity, economic historians like Landes and Mokyr explained the nineteenth-century rise to global supremacy of the Western industrial powers in terms of a unique and superior culture of innovation, rooted in scientific curiosity, economic rationality and liberal values and institutions (Landes, The Unbound Prometheus; Mokyr, The Lever of Riches). This technological culture allowed the initially resource-poor Europeans to overtake and subjugate civilizations like China or the Islamic empires, which had formerly led the world in technological sophistication and commercial importance. Acknowledging that these non-Western societies had developed once-impressive technological landscapes, historians of this school asked what factors had impeded the cultural creativity and dynamism necessary for them to follow the Western path to sustained technological innovation and accelerated economic growth (Elvin, The Pattern of the Chinese Past; Jones, The European Miracle). There are disagreements about the dates of the ‘Great Divergence’, and about whether other civilizations were inherently ‘blocked systems’ or rather knocked off track by Western competition and intrusions – but such critiques likewise typically treat technology as a proxy for economy (for instance Pomeranz, The Great Divergence).

Meanwhile, in less celebratory mode, political historians like Michael Adas and Daniel Headrick emphasized the oppressive power of Western technology as a tool of imperialist domination. Westerners took ‘machines as the measure of men’ to rank races and regions, and to justify colonialism as a civilizing mission. The technologies they imported –from weaponry to railways and factories –functioned as both material and cultural infrastructure, remodeling local societies, disciplining subject populations and forming subaltern identities (Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men; Headrick, Power over Peoples). Technological imperialism did not end with the independence of former colonies after WWII, but continued through development aid and programs for technology transfer, which helped perpetuate the underdevelopment of non-Western nations (Adas, Dominance by Design).

Both models have been criticized as Eurocentric, firstly for suggesting that all significant innovation occurred in the West and flowed outwards from there, and secondly, from a more explicitly post-colonial perspective, for downplaying the agency of non-Western subjects, and neglecting the role of local technological cultures and landscapes in shaping the outcomes of such encounters. Some post-colonial historians take cases such as railroads or engineering education to ask how local technological landscapes and cultures co-produce, transmute or subvert colonial or cosmopolitan knowledge and practice (Mentzel, Transportation Technology; Martykánová, “Global Engineers”). Some anatomize the forms of technological imperialism practiced by non-Western powers (Moore, Constructing East Asia). Others trace the emergence of modern technological cultures that differentiate themselves from hegemonic norms (Medina, Marques, and Holmes, Beyond Imported Magic). Another fruitful alternative shifts the focus from large technological systems controlled by the state or corporations to ‘everyday technologies’ such as bicycles or sewing-machines, imported innovations that local populations adapted and naturalized into their technological landscape, changing their lives and expectations in the process (Arnold, Everyday Technology; Fretwell, “The Tools of Tailoring”). Looking at ‘technologies in use’ also draws attention to the often indispensable role of older technologies in making new systems work, while illuminating hybridizations or creolizations of knowledge and practice at local and world level (Edgerton, The Shock of the Old). Meanwhile studies at the global scale of technologies like nuclear power, automobile production or food provisioning illuminate how geographies of difference, including racialized hierarchies, are reproduced through the articulations of global supply chains and divisions of labor (Hecht, Being Nuclear; Grandin, Fordlandia; Freidberg, Fresh).

Undermining the idea of modern technology and its values as a Western export, these critical approaches reveal instead a rich historical tapestry interweaving threads from around the globe. Yet revising the narrative of the origins of industrial culture can only contribute so far to expanding our technological imaginations. Studies that elude or reject this teleology can be most stimulating here, seeking to recover modes of world-building that seldom figured in conventional histories of technology: stones, arrows, hammocks, yams or stairs anchor technological cultures in which temporalities, flows, forces, and the efficacy of material action were conceived in ways deeply alien to modern technological rationality, and yet deeply resonant across human experience (Gómez, “Caribbean Stones and the Creation of Early-Modern Worlds”; Mavhunga, Transient Workspaces; Norton, “Subaltern Technologies”; Coupaye, Growing Artefacts, Displaying Relationships; Bray, “Technics and Civilization in Late Imperial China”). Debates about more prosaic technological systems such as military revolutions and gunpowder empires have moved on, from ‘antiquated notions’ of diffusion from West to East and the innovative limitations of Eastern societies, to informed analyses of South-South flows and East-East early modern arms races, whose contributions to European developments are now freely acknowledged (Levi, “Asia in the Gunpowder Revolution”; Andrade, “Culture and Context”). Together with longue durée studies of global commodities such as porcelain or cotton, or comparative histories of useful knowledge, these approaches destabilize the Eurocentric geographies, chronologies and categories that still dominate both history of technology and world history (Gerritsen, The City of Blue and White; Riello and Parthasarathi, The Spinning World; Schäfer and Valeriani, “Technology Is Global”).

The challenge of epistemic justice also frames three helpful introductory surveys of technology in world history. All emphasize the importance of understanding how technological landscapes and cultures relate; W. Bernard Carlson presents case studies of societies grouped by era and treated by and large as self-contained. Headrick and Arnold Pacey emphasize interactions and flows. Pacey’s cases of ‘technological dialogue’ give unusual prominence to ‘South-South’ interactions and to ‘South-North’ flows of technological ideas and practices. None can fully evade the teleology of the Rise of the West, but all do their best to qualify its dynamics and, despite the straitjacket of linear chronology, to offer non-specialists accessible narratives that challenge received opinion (Carlson, Technology in World History; Headrick, Technology; Pacey and Bray, Technology in World Civilization).

The framework of world history offers valuable correctives to the Eurocentric instincts that still dominate history of technology, while technology offers a rewarding heuristic prism for enriching world history. One obvious contribution is to people the global map with technological actors and ideas beyond the narrow sphere of Europe. Another is to highlight south-south relations. Most important, explorations of technological landscapes and cultures beyond the telos of industrial modernity can expand our technological imaginations, better equipping us to meet the technogenic challenges that face the world today.

Primary Sources

Akan Gold-Weight in the Shape of the Sankofa Bird

Gold sculpture of a bird with it's head turned backwards
These intricate figurines, made by skilled West African smiths, were measuring instruments central to world flows of capital and commerce through medieval and early modern times. West Africa was one of the world’s main sources of gold from antiquity onwards. Keeping the location of the region’s gold-fields secret, the great empires of ancient Ghana (6th - 13th century), Mali (c. 1240-1645) and Songhai (c. 1460-1591), and later the Akan states of what Europeans called the Gold Coast, grew immensely rich by controlling the gold trade. For centuries these African states were admired by Muslim and European visitors for both their wealth and their sophistication. African gold traveled both by land across the Sahara to the cities of Egypt and the North African coast, and later also by sea to Europe and the Americas. It supplied the royal mints and treasuries of the Mediterranean kingdoms and Islamic, Portuguese, Dutch and British empires, and financed commercial activities and trade across the world. While over the centuries new sources of gold in the Americas, Southern Africa and Australia affected its relative position in world gold markets, the international gold trade has remained central in the economy of West Africa right up to the present. Gold-dust allows for more versatile transactions than bullion. West African smiths began to make gold-weights for weighing out precise quantities of the dust in around 1400. The complete apparatus for storing and weighing gold-dust comprised scales, scoops, and elaborate and beautiful boxes as well as the gold-weights, designed as geometric forms, scenes from everyday life, and real or mythical animals such as the sankofa bird shown here, whose backward-turned head represents the proverb “One must turn to the past to move forward.” Most weights were made of brass, typically using the lost-wax technique. African smiths had long been skilled as iron-workers; brass-casting and the lost-wax method may have been introduced with other Islamic techniques and practices as West African states Islamized from about 1000. The gold-weight was first modeled in wax then covered in clay to form the mold; the clay was heated so that the wax ran out, then molten brass was poured into the mold and allowed to cool. Portuguese, Muslim and local trade operated using different metrics, and Akan communities produced weights corresponding to each system. It was crucial that the brass figure weigh exactly the right amount. As the designs were so elaborate a slight mismatch was frequent, so once cast the weight might have to be filed down a little, or otherwise adjusted. Accurate weighing is a tricky technique, made more difficult in the case of gold-dust because it is both slightly sticky and easily spilled. Brass-smiths made two sizes of scales, one for bigger amounts, the smaller so light and delicate that a breath of wind could disrupt the operation. Akan boys began training in the art of handling gold-dust as adolescents. As well as technical competence, this was deemed a training in personal qualities prized in Akan society: accuracy, steadiness, judgment and even-handedness.

Southern Manchuria Railway (1906-1945)

Map showing railways across Eastern China, Korea, and Japan
The world’s earliest locomotive-operated railroads, short stretches transporting coal and ore locally from mines to factories and furnaces, were developed in Britain between 1800 and 1825. Soon the potential for transporting all kinds of goods as well as passengers became apparent, and by the 1830s railways were also being built in France, Prussia and the United States. Shareholder companies sprang up, hoping to reap rich returns for the heavy (and risky) investments required to build and run new railway networks. Engineers prospered designing new locomotives and new projects. Governments from Turkey to Argentina, perceiving the potential of railways to extend their territorial control and boost revenue-generating economic activity, likewise invested heavily in railway construction. In the United States, white settlement of the Midwest in the 1860s and 1870s followed the extension of the railroad network into the prairies. Russia established its first locomotive factories in the 1850s, and by the late 1870s its railways had crossed the Urals: Siberia became an exporter of wheat and dairy, and the Russian Empire extended to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast. In its newly conquered territories of Central Asia, the Russian government built railways primarily to transport troops and weapons and maintain military control. This was also one important function of the railways built by the British in colonial India. In 1905, seeking colonies of its own, the rapidly industrializing nation of Japan defeated Russia in a war over access to Manchuria and Korea. Japan took over the railways that Russia and China had already constructed in the region, amalgamating and extending them to form the Korean Government Railway (Sentetsu) and the South Manchuria Railway (Mantetsu). In the 1870s Japan had employed British engineers to design and construct its first national railways and to train engineers. By 1900 not only did Japan rely on its own engineers, but it was producing its own engines. The 1921 4-6-2 (Pashishi) locomotive shown here was designed specifically for Korean conditions. Railways were at the core of Japanese imperial expansion: the lines integrated industrial sectors, assured communications between the homeland and the colonies, and moved troops to trouble-spots and battle-fields. As in other empires, the railway lines that Japan built through its new territories were powerful symbols to its colonial subjects of technical superiority and political control; the United States occupying forces dissolved the imperial railroad companies immediately after Japan’s defeat in 1945. Yet in Japanese eyes the railways were valued not only as instruments of imperial power, but also because they extended Japan’s peaceful reach. The 1920s promotional postcard shown here, printed and distributed in London, declares that the South Manchuria Railway Company provides the “shortest and quickest route between the Far East and Europe.” Linking the country through Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway to Europe, it wove Japan into an international network of civilized and desirable destinations.


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Trained in Chinese studies, Francesca Bray is a historian and anthropologist of technology, science and medicine. She is particularly interested in how politics are expressed and enacted through everyday technologies, and in the politics underpinning different narratives about technology in national, comparative and global history. Publications include The Rice Economies: Technology and Development in Asian Societies (1986), Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China (1997) and Moving Crops and the Scales of History (2022); she is co-editor of the 3-volume Cambridge History of Technology (in progress).

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"Primer: Technology," in World History Commons, [accessed June 12, 2024]