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Technology History

Technology is the means humans have created to control their environment so they can survive and be comfortable. From prehistoric times, people have devised new ways to travel, ways to build different types of dwellings to suit various climates, and ways of recording what they have learned and observed. Other technological advances have helped cure illness, created a variety of labor-saving devices, and created scientific instruments from microscopes to telescopes. As illustrated in historical pictures, the history of technology is largely about inventions and adapting to change, based on insights provided by science.

Energy sources to keep us warm and to power our activities began with wood fires. Manual labor built ziggurats, pyramids, and cities in the ancient world. Wind drove sailing-ships, as historical images show, and later drove windmills. Newer power sources include coal, steam, electricity, and oil and gas. Foot travel gave way to transportation using animals, such as oxen and horses. After invention of the steam engine, animal power was replaced by steamboats and steam locomotives, making the great wagon trails obsolete. Steam engines, in turn, gave way to gasoline-powered automobiles and airplanes, as seen in vintage pictures.

As early humans learned to communicate by talking and gesturing, they developed languages. Some prehistoric people left expressions of their experiences in the form of cave paintings and drawings on rock, such as petroglyphs seen in photographs of the US Southwest. The development of alphabets allowed speakers of ancient languages to record their thoughts and experiences in writing, for example, hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt. Writing enabled literature and philosophy to fluorish in classical civilizations. However, early books and records were hand-written and only existed as manuscripts until the invention of printing in the 1400s. Printed books accelerated the dispersal of ideas and knowledge as reading was learned by nearly everyone. Another technological achievement was communication over long distances. Systems like signal flags and messengers were replaced by 19th-century inventions, namely, the telegraph, the telephone, and radio, as seen in vintage pictures.

The Industrial Revolution created an enormous technological break with the past, but the socicultural effects were even more profound, including urbanization and mechanization, as shown in historical pictures. Factories replaced home crafts as a way of producing clothing and other goods, and the mills drew people away from farms and into cities for employment. As seen in historical pictures, immigrants from other countries also flooded to American cities. Even agriculture was mechanized, freeing rural families to find work in the cities or to migrate westward to new homesteads on the frontier. Workers in the new industries, such as steel mills, formed labor unions to reform unsafe workplaces and unfair pay, sometimes resulting in strikes or violent clashes, such as the Pullman strike in 1894. In response to these and other issues, such as poverty, social reformers found ways to improve life in the 1800s, as historical pictures illustrate.

Pictures of architectural history show an enormous variety of human dwellings, from caves to skyscrapers. Some homes could be moved, for example, yurts and tepees; others were huge, such as castles. Frontier homes like log cabins used locally available materials, in this case, timber. Other building materials seen in historical pictures include earth or sod homes and mud bricks called adobe, hide coverings, thatch made of sticks and grasses, stone masonry buildings, wooden homes, and manufactured materials such as brick. Forts were built for defense of territory, constructed according to the type of terrain or nature of the threat. As vintage pictures show, city buildings were designed ever higher in order to make use of limited land for a more concentrated population. Also, the design of bridges changed as materials and engineering knowledge advanced, such as the first steel-wire suspension bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, a milestone in architectural history.

Advances in medicine included development of vaccines to prevent some major diseases, for instance, smallpox and rabies. Professionalization of nurses and physicians improved patient care. Other steps toward improving public health were made by microbiologists who alerted us to the presence of germs in our food, milk, and water. The discovery of radiation led to medical use of x-rays, another tool to prolong lives and advance medical knowledge. On the other hand, technological change also modernized weapons, making them more deadly from longer distances. For instance, hand-held weapons, like spears and swords, were succeeded by devices using black powder, such as artillery and muskets and other guns. These developments changed warfare as well as hunting.

Historically important inventions were made possible by great scientific thinkers and researchers. As seen in historical pictures, physicists, mathematicians, and chemists discovered physical principles that laid the groundwork for the modern energy and telecommunications systems, while biologists and other natural scientists uncovered the bases of life sciences including the great issues about human origins and evolution. Life science research also underlies the efforts of medical scientists to prolong lives and conquer disease. Geologists are explaining forces within the earth, and since ancient times astronomers have observed the stars in order to explain the universe itself.


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