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Search tags: history-of-technology
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url 2019-08-13 15:39
Podcast #155 is up!
The Life and Legend of James Watt: Collaboration, Natural Philosophy, and the Improvement of the Steam Engine - David Philip Miller

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview David Miller about his new biography of the 18th century scientist and inventor James Watt. Enjoy!

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review 2018-05-10 18:47
Y2K compliant SAP: "A Life in Code - A Personal History of Technology" By Ellen Ullman
Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology - Ellen Ullman

If you want to get a glimpse of what was the Y2K Bug craze in 1999 Ullman’s chapter on it is a must.

 

Millenniums may ask: “What was the Y2K bug?” Well, as one who was actively working in IT at the time, it basically was the number of seriously heavyweight IT-reliant- and IT-provider-based organizations running crapped out, moth-eaten, disaster-ready systems for critical public service and infrastructure functions, systems that were originally developed for Noah's GPSing around Ararat, beggars belief. The problem with the earlier Y2K and other system's potential 1970s-based clock issue and its siblings was and is their potential for cascading. The Y2K bug did, indeed, bite a lot of systems, but it did not go critical and ignite a runaway reaction. However, before the event absolutely no-one on the planet knew for sure whether it would or not.

 

 

If you're into Computer Science of the Personal Kind, read on

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review 2018-04-03 15:25
The long history of "tomorrow's car"
The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age - Gijs Mom

The relative novelty of the electric vehicle today can obscure the fact that it has a history dating back to the beginnings of the automobile itself. For while most people still drive cars and trucks fueled by gasoline, electricity was a motive power adopted by quite a few vehicle manufacturers in Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this book, Gijs Mom explores issues of technology, infrastructure, and consumer culture to explain why it was that electric vehicles failed to become the dominant vehicle type in the early years of automobile development.

Mom divides the history of the electric vehicle into three "generations." In the first, which spanned from 1881 until 1902, automobiles were primarily toys of the wealthy and the enthusiast. The technological limitations facing electric cars — the limited rage and lack of places to replenish their motive energy — were shared by their gasoline and steam-powered counterparts. While gasoline-powered vehicles began developing an advantage in range by the end of this period, the zero emissions and overall cleanliness of electric vehicles still made electric cars a preferred option for many drivers in cities, where distance driving was less of an issue.

By the beginning of the 20th century, a consensus had formed that poor battery performance was the main constraint holding back the development of the electric vehicle. During the second generation, which Mom dates from 1902 until the mid-1920s, improved battery designs helped to address this by improving their capacity. Electric cars continued to enjoy a place in the automotive market, particularly for urban fleet usage, the well-to-do, and women. The key appeal for the latter group was the ease of starting electric vehicles, which did not require the physically demanding cranking required of early gas-powered vehicles. It was the adoption of the electric starter by the early 1920s (in essence, the partial "electrification" of the gasoline-powered vehicle) which Mom sees as cementing the dominance of the gasoline vehicle, though he notes the persistence of electric vehicle usage for some organizations well into the post-World War II era, long before the late-20th century revival of interest in electric vehicles asserted itself.

Mom's history of the electric vehicle is a fascinating study of the factors at play in the adoption of technology, in this case one the ramifications of which are still being addressed today. Though his prose is painstaking and occasionally burdened with conceptual jargon, his assiduous research and detailed analysis provides a well-reasoned explanation for the early failure of electric cars to become the dominant automotive technology. With its account of technological cul-de-sacs and cultural headwinds, readers will find within its pages a story with some echoes of the issues facing electric vehicles today, one that gives a new meaning to Faulkner's adage about the past not being dead or even past. For this reason alone it deserves a wide audience among everyone interested in its subject.

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review 2018-04-02 17:07
The politics of international communications networks
The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics, 1851-1945 - Daniel R. Headrick

As technology has increased the speed of communications over the past two centuries, so too has it increased its importance to governments.  With knowledge being power, governments have sought to capitalize on the increasing rapidity and accessibility of communications, both for advancing their own control and to limit the power and influence of their adversaries.  This is something that Daniel Headrick clearly demonstrates in this book, which examines the political aspects of the emergence of the global communications network in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

 

Headrick begins by examining the emergence of the first technology to make rapid communication over long distances possible – the electric telegraph.  While developing internal networks was relatively easy, communications over long distances was politically risky, as messages could be intercepted and disrupted on lines that crossed hostile territory.  Security thus became an issue early in global communications, one that could only be guaranteed by submarine cables, which gave their owner direct contact with possessions half a world away.  The leader in the effort to establish an international network was Great Britain; though most Western governments seized on telegraphy in the second half of the nineteenth century, only the British had capital markets large enough both to fund the often expensive projects and to absorb their often considerable loss.

 

By the start of the twentieth century, a rapid communications network spanned the globe, one that served as a tool of national power and security.  Yet as Headrick notes, it also fueled international insecurity.  He sees the quickening pace of communications as a factor in the growing international tensions that plagued the world in the first decade of the new century, as the speed of events overtook the ability of diplomats (who were used to a much more gradual course that gave them time in which to operate) to respond effectively.  During the war, the British demonstrated the power granted by their control of the telegraph network, as they cut the Germans off from easy contact with other regions, especially America.  This gave Britain a vital edge in shaping the interpretation of the conflict, one that helped swing the United States firmly into their camp.

 

Yet as vital an advantage communications control was, it was a reflection of British power at its zenith.  Even before the start of the war, radio threatened to break the British monopoly on telegraphy.  Moreover, by the end of the war the British faced a rival of even greater wealth: the United States, which used the new technology to erode Britain’s dominance in telecommunications.  The adoption of shortwave in the 1920s ended British hegemony, while the Second World War saw the British bequeath their position as the dominant power in global communications to the United States, during a conflict in which communications played a decisive role in the Allied victory over the Axis powers.

 

If there is a complaint to be lodged against this generally excellent book, it is that while Headrick does a great job of explaining the impact of telecommunications during the world wars, he rarely demonstrates how telecommunications facilitated political control in peacetime.  It would have been insightful to examine episodes from the early years of telecommunications revealed its power and how such examples altered views towards the burgeoning new technology.  Yet this is a minor quibble.  Well researched and clearly written, Headrick offers a great introduction to the development of the global telecommunications network in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and its role in international politics, one that should be read by anyone seeking to understand the role of technology in shaping political power.

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review 2017-07-26 08:42
Reshaping the environment to suit our needs
The Draining of the Fens: Projectors, Popular Politics, and State Building in Early Modern England (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology) - Eric H. Ash

Today The Fens is largely a misnomer, as the region of East Anglia is a flat, dry land studded with farms. Yet a few centuries ago it was a name that referred to the marshland environment of the area, one often inundated with water from the sea or from the rivers that fed into it. While these conditions was hardly conducive for growing crops, the grasses that flourished in the wetlands were ideal for animal husbandry, which was practiced as far back as the Roman occupation. During the 17th century, however, a number of parties began a decades-long project to drain The Fens that turned it into the environment which we know it as today.

 

Eric Ash's book describes how this occurred. He traces the beginnings of the project to the 1570s, when environmental changes that worsened the flooding convinced some in the royal government of the need to intervene. Until then flood management was the responsibility of sewer commissioners, prominent locals who sat on boards that were empowered to maintain flood control measures but whose resources and remit were limited to maintaining existing conditions. Now, however, the crown began to consider ambitious projects designed to drain The Fens and convert the pasture land to more desirable farmland.

 

The inhabitants of the Fens quickly objected to the government's proposal. Ash spends a good part of his book describing the various challenges to the projectors, which included political pressure, legal challenges, and even violence against the "projectors" and their employees. While efforts by the crown to secure a consensus proved elusive, it was not until first James I and then Charles I took the throne that the state grew more aggressive in its approach. Nevertheless, one of the virtues of the area of the first major drainage project, the Hatfield Level, was that the crown controlled most of the land in the area, thus forestalling much of the opposition encountered elsewhere. Work on the even larger Great Level drainage began soon afterward, and while it was disrupted by the civil war that broke out in 1641, the work continued intermittently until it was complete by the 1670s.

 

Synthesizing political, social, technological, and environmental history, Ash's book provides an excellent account of the efforts to drain The Fens in the 16th and 17th centuries. From it emerges an account of greed, environmental change, government power, and local resistance that has echoes in some of the debates over public projects and environmental regulation in our own time. Perhaps the most salient point to emerge from the book is how the efforts by people to utilize and shape their environment have long reflected their views of their relationship to it. This is true even today, for while the ongoing effort to restore The Fens embodies a very different set of assumptions and goals, they share with the drainage projects of the 17th century the idea that it is our goals which should determine its condition, even if our objectives today have brought us full circle to embracing the wetlands role The Fens had served for so long in the past.

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