Problems and Pitfalls in the History of Technology

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Until fairly recently, the history of technology received comparatively little attention. As a result, a lot of basic questions are unanswered, and in many cases information has been irretrievably lost. For example, we know the names of the Pharaohs who ordered the building of the Pyramids, but not the names of the persons who planned and organized their construction.

Incomplete Records

Tendency to Ignore the Mundane

The historical record is incomplete, and that of the history of technology is even more incomplete than most other types of history. One reason is the natural human tendency to ignore the mundane. For example, you may have your grandfather's World War II dress uniform in your attic. If you try to donate it to a museum, you may find that they have more dress uniforms than they can use. What museums would dearly love to get are work uniforms. Soldiers save their dress uniforms when they leave the service; they use their work uniforms to paint the house, change the oil, and eventually throw them away.

Elitism and disdain for manual labor

Elitism and disdain for manual labor have seriously skewed the historical record. For example, there exists a carving of the Persian king Darius on a throne with turned legs, the first indication in history that somebody has invented the lathe, one of the most important tools. We know the name of the king, but not how the lathe was invented, when, or by whom. Until recently, history has been written by the elite, and they have tended to write about the elite. For the most part they gave little attention to technical matters, and in the few cases where they did take an interest, they often did not fully understand what they recorded. The handful of writers who were both socially elite and technically knowledgeable, like the Roman military engineer Vitruvius, are priceless historical sources.

Secrecy and isolation

Fundamental inventions have probably been invented independently in many places, simply because slow communication prevented people from knowing what had been done elsewhere. If an innovation did confer some significant benefit, the inventor was likely to keep the process secret. Effective patent laws did not exist until 300 years ago; before then, the only way to keep a competitive advantage was secrecy. In some cases, the mere existence of a new product offers clues to its manufacture. In other cases, ideas would slowly diffuse as assistants and apprentices learned and passed on the techniques. But in countless cases, inventions went to the grave with their inventors.

Destruction of Documents

Paper burns, parchment rots, stone erodes. Many documents were preserved or copied, countless others were not. Even where we have historical records, we are plagued with uncertain dates, unclear identification of persons, and unclear descriptions. The familiar Christmas story illustrates the vagaries of ancient dating. The story begins not with a date but with:

In the reign of Tiberius Caesar, ......
Several centuries later, after Christianity had become dominant, a monk decided it would be a good idea to begin the calendar with the birth of Christ. He correlated the Biblical account with Roman historical records and got the wrong answer. He was off by 4 to 6 years; Christ was born in 4 to 6 B.C. according to most estimates. We do not know the date of the birth of Christ (references to shepherds watching their flocks suggest the spring lambing season), there is no record whatever of Christ's appearance, nor any exact dating of his death. Many historical identities are vague. Unless they were from an elite family (like Julius Caesar, for example), most people until recently did not have last names, and there are many duplicate names in history. There are, for example, seven Herods in the New Testament. In this case, Herod is their family name, but they have given names as well and we know them as distinct individuals.

And this is the state of affairs for the biography of the most discussed person in history. Imagine the uncertainties for the rest of history.

Even when we do have records, they were often compiled or copied by people who did not fully understand the subject. Significant facts were often omitted, and errors crept in. The difficulty of preserving and transmitting words was nothing compared to the problems of perpetuating pictorial information. If diagrams were part of the record, they were often distorted.

Destruction of Artifacts

Iron rusts, cloth and leather and wood rot, glass breaks. The amazing thing, visiting any large museum, is not that so much has been lost but that anything is left intact. Chance plays a big role in the preservation of artifacts. Near the turn of the century, Greek sponge divers seeking refuge from a storm in a remote cove decided to try their luck diving once the storm subsided. They found a submerged ancient shipwreck. These same divers were hired to help salvage the wreck, the first modern underwater archeological excavation. Among the artifacts brought up were some lumps of corroded bronze which, when cleaned, turned out to be an ancient geared machine. This device, the Antikythera Device, is the only complex piece of machinery surviving from antiquity. It was apparently an astronomical clockwork device for a temple, made about 80 A.D. If not for the survival of this object, we would have no idea the ancient world was capable of such mechanical sophistication. (With two dozen gears, the device is about as complex as an alarm clock, but nonetheless impressive for an age when all metal parts had to be made by hand.)

When we do have artifacts, they are as subject to misinterpretation as documents. Often, we do not know the purpose of an artifact; it may or may not have been practical. Late American Indian sites throughout the U.S. yield geometrical stones called "bannerstones" that have been interpreted as fishing net weights, counterbalances for throwing sticks, and ceremonial objects. The fact is, nobody knows. If by chance we find some of these objects preserved in context as they were used, we may solve the riddle. This, incidentally, is the principal reason professional archeologists detest artifact collectors: they destroy context information.

How were ancient artifacts made? In the absence of direct information, there are historians of technology that attempt to reconstruct ancient hunting, stoneworking, metallurgy, pottery making and other technologies using ancient methods and materials. Frequently they find that there is some essential step in the technology that was unsuspected or not preserved in the historical record.

Fallacies of Reasoning

Missing data in the historical record can interfere with understanding history. So can errors of reasoning and hidden biases. Dealing with these fallacies is complex, because in many cases overcorrecting for the fallacy can become a fallacy in its own right.


Oversimplification is the tendency to reduce complex events to too-simple terms. A common example: why didn't the ancient world develop powered technology? Answer: they had slaves to do all the work. So then why did slavery become entrenched in the American South after the cotton gin made it possible to harvest American cotton efficiently? How come slavery inhibited technology in the ancient world but meshed smoothly with technology in America? Clearly there have to be other factors at work.

A good recent example of oversimplification was the Laffer Curve that dominated economic policy during the early Reagan presidency. The theory is that a graph of total government revenue against taxation describes an upside-down U curve. With no taxes, the government has no revenue. If the government takes everything, nobody will bother to work and again revenue will be zero. In between must be a maximum. Reagan's policy makers believed the U.S. was on the downside of the curve and that decreasing taxes would increase revenue (we weren't, and it didn't.) The problem with the Laffer curve is not that it's wrong, but that it's trivial - we know exactly three points on the curve: zero tax, 100% tax, and where we are now. Short of cloning the United States and trying many different tax rates (or having a perfect economic computer model, which is probably even less achievable in practice), we cannot know the shape of the Laffer Curve (it could easily have several maxima and minima), and we have no idea if it has the same shape from one day to the next.

However, every intellectual idea of any utility is a simplification. Useful ideas simplify effectively by stripping away nonessentials and unifying things that seem to be disparate. The common criticism of ideas as "simplistic" is bizarre logic: the fact that an idea describes reality simply proves that the idea must be wrong, and the more effective the idea is, the greater the evidence that it must be wrong! An oversimplification is bad if it's erroneous; if it's accurate, then it's not an oversimplification. The Laffer Curve was bad not because it was simple, but because it led to wrong conclusions. Simplicity, in itself, is never a valid reason to reject an idea. Most of the fallacies that follow are variations on oversimplification.

Determinism or Linear View of History

Determinism or a linear view of history is the notion that history follows simple patterns driven by some internal, often unstoppable, force. The concept of Manifest Destiny, widely held by many 19th century Americans, is a good example. It was America's Manifest Destiny, it was claimed, to expand to the Pacific (which we did) and even to absorb Canada and Mexico (which we didn't). Events can have momentum enough to overcome resistance, but it is often impossible to predict beforehand what chain of events or historical trends will triumph. Communism looked ominously unstoppable in the 1940's and 1950's, and Marxist writers were fond of speaking as if Communism was destined to prevail. People who wrote confidently a couple of decades ago of the eventual demise of religion are quite disturbed at the resurgence of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism.

It is very hard to avoid believing that our predecessors somehow knew everything was going to lead to us. A cartoon shows a man in a modern business suit surrounded by cavemen. One of the cavemen says "Evolution's been good to you, Sid". People 500 years ago could not foresee us any more than we can foresee what things will be like 500 years from now. And they did not think of themselves as somehow intermediate between the past and the future any more than we do.

Economics is a common theme of historical determinists. Many historical determinists are fond of speaking of "epiphenomena" (Greek epi, on). That is, historical events driven by their particular interest are the "real" phenomena of history and everything else is superimposed superficially on that backdrop. For example, an economic determinist might say the Civil War was driven by the growing economic disparities between the industrial North and the agrarian South (true) and that moral outrage over slavery was merely an epiphenomenon (false). The most devastating critique of economic determinism was that by writer G. K. Chesterton. He wrote that one reason nobody has ever written a thirteen-volume history of cows is that cows are purely economic creatures, driven solely by material needs. What makes human history interesting is all the times humans are driven by unpredictable, even counter-productive forces.

Does History Follow Patterns?

Another common form of determinism is the notion that history follows predictable patterns. For example, the historian Arnold Toynbee was famous for advancing the theory that nations followed a cycle of youth, maturity, and decline. The theory is trivially true in the sense that everything has a beginning, a middle and an end, but the actual history of civilzations is far more complex. China has experienced periods of decline and periods of glory, but through it all, China is still China.

Even people who think they're historically literate can fall into subtle variations of historical determinism. One has been termed the Voltairean theory: the end state of humanity will be a liberal, skeptical, agnostic civilization in which religion will be regarded as a quaint superstition. People who subscribe to this theory are sorely perplexed by the rise of the Religious Right in America or the worldwide Islamic revival. A State Department Middle East analyst during the 1980's expressed a desire to study Islam in more detail. He was told "Forget Islam; Marxism is going to dominate peoples' thinking in the Middle East." Unfortunately, somebody forgot to tell the Moslems. The imminent wasting away of religion has been predicted so often that we are entitled to toss that prediction in the proverbial dustbin of history; religion will be a part of civilization and the human psyche for the foreseeable future.

Another once-common variant of determinism was the saying "You can't stop progress"; economic development and technological growth were inevitable and unstoppable. Disillusionment over problems created by development and technology have pretty much discredited this notion. However, its social equivalent, "You can't turn back the clock", is as widely believed as ever. The implicit assumption is that history is moving in a preordained direction and any attempt to counter current trends is retrograde. Interestingly enough, it seems to be only in the social sphere that we cannot turn back the clock. Nobody continues driving on a flat tire rather than return the tire to a state of good repair. Most people bathe to return to a state of cleanliness. And the only way to repair a garbled checkbook is to return to where the error took place and fix it.

Historians counter determinist theories, especially the more simplistic ones, with the dictum "history has no predictive value", a statement that is about 75 percent true. The fate of ancient Rome may or may not have parallels with the fate of America. Nevertheless, if history had no predictive value whatever, there would be no point in studying it. We live in a universe of patterns. Some things have been repeated often enough in history that we can see patterns; there are institutions that work and institutions that don't. Cultures tend to respond in certain ways to certain kinds of events. One reason the U.S. was so reluctant to become involved in Bosnia was the clear historical pattern that occupying Yugoslavia is easy, subduing it is another matter entirely.

Post Hoc ergo Propter Hoc

Post Hoc ergo Propter Hoc (Latin: after this, therefore because of this) is often called "misplaced causality". It is the fallacy that because one event follows another, the first event must have caused the second. A Wizard of Id cartoon nicely illustrates the fallacy:

Frog: "Kiss me and a handsome prince will appear."
(Woman begins kissing frog.)
Handsome Prince (tapping woman on shoulder): "Why are you kissing that frog?"
Frog (about to be dropped off cliff): "Did I lie to you?"

Sometimes, of course, the causal link is pretty clear. In 1400 there were perhaps 100,000 books in Europe; by 1500, after the invention of printing, there were ten million. A 100-fold increase, with its concomitant social effects, is a little hard to miss. In other cases, the two events may both be related to some larger cause. For instance, late in the Roman Empire, many people claimed that the empire was being invaded by barbarians because Rome had given up its traditional faith and adopted Christianity. Did one event cause the other, or were both symptoms of deeper- seated problems? Did the Romans give up their old beliefs, and also lose the will to fight, because they no longer saw anything worth clinging to? When events happen concurrently, it is often hard to tell which is the cause and which the effect. Finally, events may be juxtaposed without any connection. Three of the most famous geniuses of the Renaissance are Michaelangelo (1475-1564), Galileo (1564-1642) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Surely there must be some significance in the fact that each was born the exact year the previous one died. But it's only chance.

However, although things often aren't what they seem, most of the time things are what they seem. Post hoc ego propter hoc is often a handy excuse for dismissing inconvenient connections or denying the negative consequences of social changes. We live in a universe of cause and effect. If two events follow in sequence, and there's a plausible mechanism to account for the events, then there likely is some sort of causal connection, and the burden of proof in such a case is on the person who doubts the causal connection. It's only legitimate to explore the possibility things are not what they seem after we've exhausted the possibility that things are what they seem.


Ethnocentrism is the tendency to project our own cultural biases onto history. The belief that slavery impeded technology in ancient times is a good example; we oppose slavery, the ancient world had it, they failed to develop technology, serves them right. Contrary to Ben Hur, the Romans never used galley slaves. Stereotypes about the Middle Ages are another example; contrary to common belief, witchcraft trials were rare in the Middle Ages. Because so much in that period revolved around religion, the Middle Ages seem very alien to us. We find the Renaissance much more to our liking. Galley slaves and witchcraft trials were features of the Renaissance, not the ancient world or the Middle Ages. We have taken the ugly features of a period we admire and project them onto other historical periods.

One of the most persistent examples of ethnocentrism is the Flat Earth Error, the idea that people in the Middle Ages believed the Earth was flat. The reality is that a knowledge of the spherical Earth was never lost throughout the Middle Ages and was universal among all educated people. Furthermore, leading historians have been writing about this error for over a century and are continually amazed at its persistence. It persists because modern people want to believe the Middle Ages were a time of abject ignorance and superstition.

A variant of ethnocentrism that contains elements of determinism as well might be dubbed chronocentrism, the idea that Twentieth Century values are inherently superior to those of the past. That is, our values about gender roles, child rearing, sexual mores, crime and punishment and so on are naturally superior to those of times past. In some cases, like our opposition to slavery and torture, we have good reason to believe we are on solid ground. Also, despite many lapses, we do eventually learn from history. But in many other cases we dismiss older value systems simply because they interfere with what we want to do. Our descendants may see things quite differently from us. What we see as tolerance, other cultures see as moral laziness or cowardice. What we see as pacifism, other cultures may see as physical cowardice.

Historical Revisionism

Now that we are more aware of our biases, it is natural to want to correct them. Historical revisionism is the term for reinterpretation of history, especially long-accepted history. In its healthiest form, it is a means of correcting biases and looking at history from a fresh angle. It is not surprising, for example, that American Indians might see the arrival of Columbus differently from European-descended Americans. We view the opening of the American frontier a lot differently than we did in 1950. In more extreme cases, though, historical revisionism can be the deliberate substitution of one set of biases for another. For example, a controversial doctrine called Afrocentrism holds that the ancient Egyptians were black and that many of the achievements of the Middle East and Greece actually originated among black Africans. None of these claims are substantiated by the historical record. Egyptian wall paintings mostly show people with medium dark skin; in many paintings blacks are easily recognizable and distinct from Egyptians.


Debunking is a term originally applied to exposure of misconceptions or errors. However, as practiced today, debunking is mostly junk scholarship. For example, after author Alex Haley published his epic work Roots, and especially after it became a celebrated TV series, debunkers swarmed out of the woodwork to point out weaknesses in Haley's genealogy. Actually, Haley himself was quite careful in his book to distinguish between documented evidence and deductions. Debunkers never attack drivel; they attack constructive work like Haley's. Perhaps the most offensive case is the debate over whether or not Robert Peary actually reached the North Pole in 1909. Rival explorer Frederick Cook, who claimed to have reached the pole in 1908, committed not just one but several outrageous scientific frauds during his career, yet Peary is always the focus of the debunkers.

Reverse Ethnocentrism

Reverse ethnocentrism is the opposite extreme from ethnocentrism: the idea that all the problems of the world originate in Western values and culture. For example, Western corporations have been accused of corrupting other societies through bribery, but in many cultures, it is expected that people in power will use their power to help their allies, and that a favor from someone in power demands a gift. These customs have been in place for centuries; giving a gift to a person of power is not regarded as bribery or unethical. Using power impartially is not considered responsible in those cultures, but an irresponsible waste of authority, and neglect of those who depend on you for protection and assistance.

Lack of Consensus on Cause and Effect

Lack of consensus on cause and effect plagues many aspects of history. Wholly apart from the fallacies above, there are a lot of legitimate differences of opinion on which historical events were causes, which were effects, and whether one cause or effect was more important than another. For example, was the Roman Empire fatally weakened by the barbarian invasions, or did the barbarians invade because Rome was already weakened, or (more likely) was there a feedback mechanism, in which weakness invited invasion, leading to further weakness, still more invasion, and so on?

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Created 13 January 1998, Last Update 21 August 2000

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