A culture of improvement

If one wants to comment on the future of technology, it’s a good idea to have some understanding of its history. A new book by Robert Friedel,
A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium, takes on the ambitious task of telling the story of the development of technology in Europe and North America over the last thousand years.

The book is largely a very readable narrative history of technology, with some rather understated broader arguments. One theme is suggested by the title; in Friedel’s view the advance of technology has been driven, not so much by the spectacular advances of the great inventors, but by a mindset that continually seeks to make incremental improvements in existing technologies. The famous inventors, the James Watts and Alexander Graham Bells of history, certainly get due space, but there’s also an emphasis on placing the best-known inventions in the context of the less well known precursor technologies from which they sprung, and on the way engineers and workers continuously improved the technologies once they were introduced. Another theme is the way in which the culture of improvement was locked into place, as it were, by the institutions that promoted technical and scientific education, and the media that brought new scientific and technical ideas to a wide audience.

This provokes some revision of commonly held ideas about the relationship between science and engineering. In Friedel’s picture, the role of science has been, less to provide fundamental discoveries that engineers can convert into practical devices, and more to provide the mental framework that permits the process of incremental improvement. Those who wish to de-emphasise the importance of science for innovation often point to the example of the development of the steam engine – “thermodynamics owes much more to the steam engine than the steam engine owes to thermodynamics”, the saying goes. This of course is true as far as it goes – the academic subject of thermodynamics was founded by Sadi Carnot’s analysis of the steam engines that were already in widespread use, and which had been extensively developed without the benefit of much theoretical knowledge. But it neglects the degree to which an understanding of formal thermodynamics underlay the development of the more sophisticated types of engines that are still in use today. Rudolph Diesel’s efforts to develop the engine that bears his name, and which is now so important, were based on an explicit project to use the thermodynamics he had learned from his professor, Carl Linde (who also made huge contributions to the technology of refrigeration), to design the most efficient possible internal combustion engine.

Some aspects of the book are open to question. The focus on Europe, and the European offshoots in North America, is justified by the premise that there was something special in this culture that led to the “culture of improvement”; one could argue, though, that the period of unquestioned European technological advantage was a relatively short fraction of the millennium under study (it’s arguable, for example, that China’s medieval technological lead over Europe persisted well into the 18th century). And many will wonder whether technological advances always lead to “improvement”. A chapter on “the corruption of improvement” discusses the application of technology to weapons of mass destruction, but one feels that Friedel’s greatest revulsion is prompted by the outcome of the project to apply the culture of improvement to the human race itself. It’s useful to be reminded that the outcome of this earlier project for “human enhancement” was, particularly in the USA and Scandinavia, a programme of forced sterilisation of those deemed unfit to reproduce that persisted well into living memory. In Germany, of course, this “human enhancement” project moved beyond sterilisation to industrial-scale systematic murder of the disabled and those who were believed to be threats to “racial purity”.