1 The Beginnings – Technology and Society

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The Beginnings

In this chapter, we look at the origin of technology and its role in the history of human progress. Hunter-gatherers became farmers and settled down into village life. Various crafts and trades were evolved with the help of new technologies. Gradually, the division of labour and specialization led to the founding of cities and the beginnings of civilization.

 

It may be difficult for many young people to imagine a life without mobile phones or television. But we know that mobile phones appeared just around the turn of the century. Television became common in India only about 20 years before that. Cars, trains and aircraft are some other examples of technology that seem to be inseparable parts of our everyday life. But all of these are of comparatively recent origin. The first powered flight of the Wright brothers took place in 1903. Joseph Lenoir demonstrated his first ‘horseless carriage’ in 1863. (It ran on an internal combustion engine and attained a maximum speed of 5 km/h!) It was Gottleib Daimler, who built what can truly be called the first modern automobile. That was in 1887. The railway had come a bit earlier. The first public railway using a ‘steam locomotive’ was built by Richard Trevithick in 1804. The steam engine, which powered the industrial revolution, evolved in the eighteenth century, and James Watt’s first commercially successful engine was invented in 1776.

But people lived (and many of them happily!) even before all these gadgets existed. Thyagaraja composed his heavenly music and Kalidasa wrote the immortal Shakuntalam without the benefit of electric lights or computers. Sushrutha performed legendary feats of surgery and Charaka wrote his famous Samhitha about two thousand years ago, when the world had not heard of diagnostic technologies like X-rays or scanning.

Great kings like Akbar and Ashoka ruled over vast empires when the fastest way of getting about was on horseback. Without the help of gunpowder, Alexander the Great conquered much of the then known world. The Romans and the Greeks created some of the most beautiful buildings ever conceived by humans before cement was invented. The Egyptians built the Great Pyramid of Giza nearly 4500 years ago, hauling huge blocks of stones weighing several tons without the benefit of any pulleys or rollers.

Humans lived and loved and died (and killed!) much before civilization was created by technology. Technology is almost as old as humans. In a way, it is technology that made us human. But for technology, we would still be living on tree tops.

Yes, it has been a long journey. And it has been a very interesting journey. But you may well ask, “Why bother about such things? Shouldn’t we be concerned only about the ‘latest and the best’ technology? Why study about the steam engine when it is already obsolete, and we are now dreaming about space travel?” Yes, it is true that space vehicles are more relevant today than steam locomotives. But the process behind the invention of space vehicles is the same as the process through which the steam engine was conceived. Only when we understand that process can we make new technologies happen. Only when we understand the interaction between technology and society can we decide which technologies to encourage and which to discourage. Only then can we make sure that technologies improve the life of humans and do not endanger it.

The history of technology is not just a list of inventions, names of inventors and dates. It also tells us the conditions under which people lived in those times, how the need for these inventions arose, as well as the trials and tribulations of those who ventured to experiment with new ideas. We also learn about their failures, the sacrifices they had to make, and the opposition and rejection they had to face from the society before their new ideas and gadgets were accepted. Thus it is also an obligation for us, the aspiring technologists, to pay our humble tribute to the great men who made our profession possible.

1.1 The Origins of Technology

We said that the journey is as old as the human race. It began when the first stone was picked up and thrown, probably in a desperate attempt to ward off an attacking beast. The stone was the first weapon; and also the beginning of technology. Humans realized that stones with sharp edges could also be used as tools, to cut open the skin of hunted animals. They also found that some stones could be sharpened easily, but not all. (This was the beginning of material science.) The opposable thumb, which is peculiar to humans, is crucial in holding and manipulating tools. Anthropologists believe that it must have played an important role in the development of the human brain. Then came the discovery of fire, or rather, the ability to use it. Every other animal is afraid of fire. Man also was afraid of it, but his curiosity must have got the better of him, and he was bold enough to experiment with it. Eventually, he learned how to make fire and also how to keep it alive. The fire-using and tool-making animal was well on the road to humanity.

The invention of the bow was an important milestone. Not only did it extend the reach of his weapons, but the twang of the bow-string was probably also the first musical note produced by a stringed instrument.

Language must have evolved through communication among men who hunted together. The ability to hunt in groups, and the use of improved weapons like the spear, the throwing stick and its adaptation the boomerang, not to mention the bow and arrow, made man a formidable hunter. His dexterity made him an ingenious craftsman, justifying the title, ‘Man the maker’ (Homo faber). His equipment during this period included such things as bags and buckets, hooks and harpoons, dug out canoes and sewn fur garments. This phase, commonly called the Old Stone Age, must have lasted nearly two lakh years. And then came a serious crisis.

1.2 The Agricultural Revolution

Curiously enough, the crisis was partly a result of the very success of man as a hunter. The last Ice Age ended about ten thousand years ago, and as a result there was a major shift in the distribution of plants and animals. This, together with the increased hunting efficiency of humans, led to a scarcity of easily hunted animals. Normally, such a food crisis ought to have led to a fall in the population of humans, so that the hunter-prey equilibrium is restored. This is nature’s way of controlling population growth. But the humans refused to bow to this law of nature and looked for other types of food. They were already familiar with fruits and roots that were edible. They decided to supplement them with cereals such as rice and wheat. It was observed that cereals could be reproduced at will by systematic sowing. Thus was agriculture born. The hunter-gatherer became a farmer. It is interesting to note that the crisis created by the progress in hunting technology was overcome by the introduction of a new technology, namely, agricultural technology.

Agriculture changed human life completely. The hunter was constantly on the move, in search of new hunting grounds, and in keeping with the seasons. But the farmer had to stay put in one place, to reap what he had sown. This necessitated dwellings and led to the growth of permanent settlements. Agriculture also resulted in the production of a great deal of food at the time of harvesting. This surplus food had to be stored. A large stock of food, especially in times of shortage, is an invitation to robbers. This resulted in the construction of strong buildings and fortifications, as well as in wars.

Agriculture itself involved several new techniques like plowing, sowing, hoeing, reaping, threshing, winnowing, storing, grinding, baking and brewing. It also gave rise to several new crafts and trades like hut building, weaving, pot making and animal husbandry. Gradually the specialization and separation of jobs led to the division between rural and urban settlements. ‘Rural’, by definition, refers to a region inhabited by people who live mostly by agriculture, and which has a surplus of food. ‘Urban’, on the other hand, refers to a region that specializes in providing goods and services required by society. People from urban areas get their food from the rural areas.

1.3 Civilization Begins

This was the beginning of civilization. The word civilization is derived from the Latin word civitas, meaning cities. The period between the beginning of agriculture and the founding of cities is usually called the New Stone Age, because polished stone continued to be the main material used for tools and weapons in this era.

The Old Stone Age had lasted a very long time, because it represented a fine harmony between man and nature, and the level of technology remained unchanged. In the New Stone Age also, man attained an equilibrium with nature. But it was at a different technological level. There was more food security, more leisure and more scope for the flowering of the human spirit. Thus we may call it a higher level of existence. This equilibrium was so stable that those societies that were isolated continued to live in their set ways long after the rest of the culture had switched over to city-based civilizations.

The first cities were founded about six thousand years ago. They appeared mostly along the banks of the great rivers: the Euphrates and Tigris in Mesopotamia, the Nile in Egypt, the Indus in India, and the Yellow River (or Hwang Ho) in China. River banks were natural locations for cities as they offered water security for domestic as well as agricultural purposes. Later, when trade increased, the rivers were used for navigation as well.

These civilizations used metallic tools and weapons, especially those made of bronze. In fact, this age is called the Bronze Age for the same reason. Bronze, as we know, is an alloy of copper and tin. How this artificial alloy came to be in wide use, even before iron was discovered, is an interesting question. (Can you find out the answer?)

Cities that had weapons made of bronze became more efficient in fighting wars and could bring more villages under their control. This meant that they could get more food, more slaves and more soldiers. This led to the growth of some very large empires, like the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, the ancient Egyptians and the Shang dynasty in China. On the other hand, the Indus Civilization is thought to have comprised a large number of scattered cities and not a unified empire.

Food security, together with the pressing demands of war and trade, coupled with the advantages of specialization, led to a flowering of technology on various fronts. Naturally, the first breakthroughs were in metal working. Copper and bronze were found to be malleable. That means they could be hammered into shape, beaten into sheets and cut into pieces. This made them invaluable as materials for tools and weapons. The art of melting and casting them was also developed around this time. High temperatures were required for their melting and casting. (The melting point of copper is 1,084° while that of tin is 232° Celsius.) This called for a furnace capable of high temperatures using an air blast. The practical metallurgy of separating the metal from its ores was also developed.

From copper and bronze, these techniques were easily extended to silver, lead and tin. Iron was a more difficult problem, because of the much higher temperatures required (The melting point of iron is 1,538° Celsius).

This metallurgical activity involved a technology that was much harder than that of the potter, weaver or boat builder. Thus metallurgists and miners came to be set apart as something more than mere craftsmen or specialists. Thus they came to have a special status. They were, in fact, the first engineers.

By 3000 BC, oxen began to be used for pulling wooden ploughs. Agriculture was thus wedded to animal husbandry. The animals also provided fertilizer for the fields. Handling the ox and the heavy plough required a man’s strength. Thus agriculture came to be mostly men’s work.

Control over animals gave humans a new source of energy. Until then, they had only their own muscle power. Animals could carry loads and pull carts. The wheel is considered to be one of the most important inventions of all time. Two- and four-wheeled vehicles made their appearance around 3000 BC.

Boats driven by sails were used in Egypt around this time. Sailed, rowed, paddled and hauled boats resulted in the expansion of trade. Raw materials had to be imported and craft goods had to be exported. With the expansion of trade, merchants and artisans became richer and more powerful in society.

The invention of the potter’s wheel also caused a revolutionary change in this craft. Hand-formed pottery had been made for a long time, mainly by women. But the potter’s wheel required greater physical strength and longer periods of training. Gradually, this work also was taken over by men. Thus another new full time craft was born. It is interesting to note how the dictates of technology lead to gender differentiation in society.

1.4 Conclusion

With the flowering of Bronze Age culture, we find a strengthening trend toward increased specialization. The emerging gender roles are also interesting. There is a profound change in the organization of society, from one based on agriculture to one based on crafts and trade. Earlier, the king or the war- chief was the most powerful person in the society, and the priest wielded considerable power as his adviser and also in his own right. Now this was threatened and gradually replaced by the power of capital, i.e., the power of wealth derived from trade and commerce. It was this profound change in technological, social, economic and political life that constituted the urban revolution. It was this accumulation of wealth, improvement of technical knowledge, increasing specialization of craft skill, and expanding trade that made civilization possible.

Exercises

  1. Choose the correct statement: Old Stone Age ended when
    1. stones became scarce.
    2. metals became available.
    3. agriculture was developed.
    4. bow and arrow was invented.
  2. Choose the correct statement: Humans had to invent agriculture because
    1. animals had become scarce.
    2. they liked vegetarian food.
    3. land was fertile.
    4. land was scarce.
  3. In the beginning, agriculture was mostly the task of women.
    • True
    • False
  4. Choose the correct statement: The reason pottery became man’s occupation was
    1. the use of high temperatures for baking the pots.
    2. the need for high craftsmanship skills.
    3. the need for long apprenticeship in working the wheel.
    4. women were busy with cooking.
  5. Choose the correct statement: The power of the king or the war-chief was threatened by
    1. the priestly class.
    2. the emerging traders.
    3. the people who wanted democracy.
    4. those who wanted to become kings.
  6. Discuss how technology influenced the development of society with examples from the Stone Age.
  7. Discuss how technology influences gender differentiation with examples from the past as well as present.