Basalla, George. The Evolution of Technology. Cambridge UP 1988.

Basalla argues that "[t]he history of technology, a discipline that focuses on the invention, production and uses of material artifacts, benefits from the application of the evolutionary analogy as an explanatory device." (2) Evolution is not a product of need.
[T]he history of technology is a part of the much broader history of human aspirations, and the plethora of made things are a product of human minds replete with fantasies, longing, wants, and desires. The artifactual world would exhibit far less diversity if it operated primarily under the constraints imposed by fundamental needs. (14)

As a result of the great 17th -century clock analogies and the theory of evolution, many "organic-mechanical analogies move from technology to biology. Structures and processes in living organisms were described and explained in mechanical terms." (15)
For instance, General Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers (much influenced by his contemporary Darwin) "offered a theoretical basis for the integration of intellectual and technological achievement. ….Pitt-Rivers believed that technological change was not accomplished by a series of great, unrelated leaps forward by a few heroic inventors. Instead, the form of a modified artifact was based on that of a preexisting predecessor. From this followed the insight that every made thing could be placed within a sequence, which itself was interconnected to other sequences, and that, if we followed these backward in time, they would converge, leading us to the traces of the earliest human artifacts."

Basalla presents his thesis: "…my theory of technological evolution, unlike any of its predecessors, is rooted in four broad conceptual concepts: diversity, continuity, novelty and selection. As I have already shown, the made world contains a far greater variety of things than are required to meet fundamental human needs. This diversity can be explained as the result of technological evolution because artifactual continuity exists: novelty is an integral part of the made world; and a selection process operates to choose novel artifact for replication and addition to the stock of made things. The remainder of this book will be devoted to a thorough analysis of the theoretical and artifactual ramifications of the four concepts. (25)


Basalla offers several case studies in continuity, including stone tools, the cotton gin, steam and internal combustion engines, the electric motor, the lighting system, barbed wire. Having shown the antecedents for these inventions, he says "…less obvious is the realization that all variants are not of equal importance. Some are simply inoperable; some are ineffective, and some are effective but have little technological and social influence. Only a few variants have the potential to start a new branching series that will greatly enrich the stream of made things…" (34)

Basalla combines Joseph Needham's essay "The Pre-Natal History of the Steam Engine," as well as the comments of Maurice Daumas and Paul Gille, that the "atmospheric engine would probably have been invented in the first half of the eighteenth century, even if Newcomen had never lived" to address this "predetermination" question. Were enough precursors 'in the air' that someone could have figured it out? Basalla doesn't quite go there. Nothing is predetermined; "a talented inventor and a likely antecedent are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions to create an innovation with wide social and technological repercussions." (62)

NB - a side inquiry - inventions and practices are lost that are known to only a few and kept only if communicated. Is diversity of artifacts increasing or decreasing? Does the "discard" pile equal or surpass the pile currently in use? (How does the biological record of species read in this regard? What overcomes biological, individual and social entropy?)

Only one artifact need not be the inspiration. "It is a tribute to Edison's genius that, as he developed his electrification scheme, he had the boldness and the imagination to draw analogies between two such disparate technologies as illuminating gas and electricity. That he should have felt the necessity to seek such analogies, moreover, is additional evidence supporting the model of continuous technological change." (49)

Then why do inventions do often appear discontinuous? Older inventions are suppressed or forgotten. Impulses to patriotism - we did it first! -- and patent protection system also contribute to the notions of priority.


How does novelty "assert itself in the midst of the continuous?" (63) It's hard to have a theory of novelty; a theory of social interaction is easier to posit. Basalla believes that the "potential for invention exists throughout the human race. Some individuals have greater inventive skills that others, some cultures are better able to exploit the innovative potential in their midst, and in some cultures inventiveness strongly manifests itself in other than novel material objects. But there is no evidence to support the contention that a particular nation or race has an extended monopoly on creativity." (65)

Fantasy, play with technology, got a big boost from printing. Think of the 1400-1600 machine books, including The Various and Ingenious Machines by Agostino Ramelli, a French military engineer, in 1588. Conrad Kyeser's Bellifortis, with many pictures of war machines (1405) and The New Atlantis of 1627, by Sir Francis Bacon. (Leonardo Da Vinci is a good example of the era, but his notebooks were not influential, because they were unpublished). The era of the Renaissance is characterized by technological exuberance: "the technological imagination is very rich. Hardly constrained by biological or economic necessity, it often exceeds the boundaries of rationality as it contemplates the improbable and the impossible. The fertile technological imaginations create a superfluity of novel artifacts from which society makes selections." (77)

Another avenue of novelty is technology transfer. Imperialism is one pretty big factor. "India's railway was in operation twenty-five years before Japan's and thirty years before China's. And India opened its first cotton mill in 1851, fifteen years before the Japanese did likewise." (81) And yet, notes Basalla, it did not transform their economy or vault them into first world power position. Migration is another avenue for technology transfer. The classic exodus of the Hugenots from France to England, Ireland, Holland, Germany and Switzerland (Edict of Nantes 1685) brought innovations to textile industries, changes in apparel, and improved manufacture of fine paper and blown and cast plate glass in those countries. Certainly papers and diagrams don't replace experts, and experts carry technology abroad. This trend is illustrated by the needs of the English, who sent spies to Italy in 1715, to get the silk throwing machine, and American colonies, who sent spies to Britain for textile mills as well. (85-86) Basalla tells the tale of one of the founders of Tokyo Telecommunications (Sony), Masaru Ibuka, and his decision to adapt the transistor from the US for use in a pocket radio. Yet another influence is the environment. He uses three axe heads - German, British and American - and describes the three environments in which they were developed.

Science contributes, but does not determine. "A more realistic and historically accurate assessment of the influence of science on technological change is that it is one of several, interacting sources of novelty. (92) ..the connection… is never simply hierarchical."
For example, James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79) developed mathematically based laws of electromagnetism. Heinrich Hertz (1857-94) experimentally verified the existence of electromagnetic waves via spark radiotelegraphy. In 1894 Sir Oliver Lodge demonstrated his transmitting device at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) focused on distance signaling, and on commercially viable radio communications systems, which he sold first to the British army and navy. He founded the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company in 1897. Marconi didn't do the early theoretical work, but he shaped "the whole thing into a practical, and useable system." Close paraphrase of pages 99-100 Newcomen and Marconi demonstrate the link between science and innovative, entrepreneurial inventors who advance technology. Steam and radio are post-Renaissance because science helped make these innovations possible, and "…Science was a product of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European culture." (102)

NOVELTY also includes socioeconomic and cultural factors. Sociologist George C. Homans postulates that "craft is pursued to earn a living and consequently…social and economic factors combine to impede or accelerate an existing tendency to creativity." There are three categories: high, middle and low. The middle are least likely to innovate. They tend to be conservative; they have the most to gain by maintaining a status quo and the most lose by making novel artifacts. The bottom have nothing to lose; they can hope for attention and sales. The top innovates to prove superiority and maintain a position of leadership. I would comment that this theory only works if innovation is approved by society. But Basalla says that it obtains in Africa and Latin America as well as the Pueblo culture and Mexican potters.

N.B. Skeuomorphic structures - "A skeuomorph is an element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material." (107)

Clearly, there are economic incentives to innovate. Textile industry offers some examples. Jacob Schmookler argues that market demands pull innovations (rather than the push of scientific knowledge). Labor scarcity is another economic factor. Many historians and contemporary observers suggest that the US has been the hotbed for such devices, because it had lots of land, relatively high wages for farmers. Since there were alternatives for factory workers, and a shortage all around, labor-saving devices caused no internal disruptions as they did in England. American inventions include Oliver Evans's automatic flour mill and the Blanchard lathe (1820), a woodworking machine that reproduced irregularly shaped wooden objects.

Basalla argues that lack of patent protection was not an economic deterrent in some countries, but it is hard to see the whole picture. "The significance of patents is not that they offer strong and indisputable incentives for invention. The most that can be said is that at some time, and under certain circumstances patents have probably been beneficial in promoting economic growth and inventiveness. In fact, the effectiveness of the patent system is less important than the fact that every industrialized country in the West has made patenting a national institution, complete with supporting bureaucracy, legislation, and state funding." (124) Patents are a bargaining chip, or a block, a set of tools used by research labs

Returning to culture, some cultures equate novelty with heresy; and Basalla starts the "craze" for novelty with the Renaissance. Lynn White, Jr. claims that Western science and technology were given a spur by the Christian concept of domination of nature (but since it only happened in the Renaissance, one wonders where this concept was earlier…)
There are two conclusions to be made: innovation cannot be theorized because the factors are too varied - the irrational, the playful, scientific knowledge, cultural attitudes towards novelty, social and economic factors, etc. There are too many permutations to make a satisfactory model (heterogenous engineering…?) However, all we need is an adequate supply. What we can suggest is that society chooses from a superfluity of novelty.


Economic and Military Factors

Basalla also argues that there are a multitude of factors affecting selection. "The selection process is of crucial importance for present and future human history, yet it does not function in a rational, systematic or democratic manner. Trial and error predominates as a method, and the small number of men and women who participate in it are subject, to, among other things, economic constraints, military demands, ideological pressures, political manipulation, and the power of cultural values, fashions and fads. A process open to the influences of such diverse and conflicting forces is not one whose operation is likely to be readily summarized or neatly reduced to a theoretical model." (139)

Sometimes inventors and the public cannot see or agree upon the uses for an invention. As an explanation, market demand is not enough. "Economic historian Nathan Rosenberg has noted that there are a host of deeply felt needs in the world at any time, needs that create potential markets, and yet only a very small number of these recurrent needs are ever fulfilled…. Market pull is certainly a mysterious force if it can exist in a potential form for decades, even centuries, and then suddenly bring forth a new product or device that 'everyone always wanted.'" (144)

To return to the steam engine and the waterwheel, the technology existed for both long before it was used. Why? For the waterwheel, there was no strong need for labor-saving devices while slavery obtained as a result of war. And nature was perhaps seen as more sacred, water streams not to be diverted. Only when labor ran short, when the Roman Empire collapsed, did waterwheels take off. They spread from 476 to 1300 AD from Spain to Russia. They were the engine of the medieval work. Another factor, says Basalla, is the medieval belief in the dignity of work in a monastic life. Work is good, production for of goods for trade is important to win time to pray. Slaves (I guess) are antithetical to such a lifestyle. Monasticism is, in every way suited, to a mechanical solution.Waterpower lived for about a century beside steam engines, until steam was definitively better in all cases. Waterwheels were improved by the impetus of steam, as were sails. Technology "switch-over" was delayed because it still made economic sense to use waterwheels.

(Rudi Volti) and Basalla mention the McCormick reaper - how and why it penetrated when it did. Farm size has something to do with the equation, opening of the West to settlers, as did the advent of the railroad, and a shipping system that gave a market for those big farms that needed the reaper to be harvested. The SST - Concorde - is a negative example. A political change and a political groundswell questioned why technology was to be developed with govn't funds, if it were ever likely to be profitable, and the nervous NIMBY public combined to shut it down (lack of vision, says me).

Military examples include the truck and nuclear power. developed in WW I and II respectively, supported by strategic needs for ground cover and culturally devastating firepower. The current forms of nuclear power plants were decided, argues Basalla, by wartime nuclear sub considerations, not by economic factors. "Never before have so many important innovations arisen and been developed largely because of their potential use in waging war." (168) (But, says me, there hasn't been a time when so many motor-driven innovations could have existed. So there's nothing to compare this time with.)

Social and Cultural Factors

The Chinese invented gunpowder, printing and the magnetic compass but didn't conquer the West. Why? Basalla rejects the idea that the Chinese couldn't see the uses of these inventions; indeed, they were put to use. However, the scientific revolution simply didn't happen in China. So culturally some force was at play. Joseph Needham argues that the centralized government, bureaucratic feudalism, militated against the rise of a class of powerful merchants with spare capital to invest in odd projects, as there were in Europe. Also this large government provided stability rather than convulsive social, political and intellectual revolutions of Europe. If the argument is not yet convincing, in fact, no one is quite convinced that the answer has been found. (or will be). Xenophobia, arrogance, and stagnation are also cited.

Basalla mentions two "fads:" the atmospheric railway and nuclear-powered vehicles. The atmospheric railway worked on steam power pumped through the rails themselves, and given the state of pressure, seals, and engines, the technology to make it work simply didn't exist. Isambard Kingdom Brunel was involved, however, and that drew others in. It had some key flaws: it depended on pumping stations, one-way track, and also lack of engine meant lack of control. These problems could have been resolved, but weren't. Of the nuclear-powered ship, he says it was simply too expensive to build. So much for atoms for peace. (He makes an amusing mis-step with personal PCs p. 185)

There is invention, replication and discard, according to George Kubler. Why discard? He mentions the Pacific Islanders who repudiate the canoe, pottery and bow and arrow. Some cultural value overwhelms the usefulness of the artifact. Not satisfactory, I say, but no other answers are forthcoming. And some things are revived or never elided in different places, for different purposes. Guns in Japan were repressed and reintroduced, steam engines obtained in China long after their ending in the West.

There are alternative technical paths to be followed. Instances of hand tools, block printing for East and West. For a while, the Eastern xyolographic method flourished (400-1500) and was as quick as the Western typographic method. Culturally, books were art forms, not methods for disseminating information. My argument: literacy was simply harder in China. There was no general movement for literacy, no Reformation, no scientific revolution, and so the audience for books remained smaller. Other examples: canals vs. railways, steam vs. gas and electric vehicles. A combination of factors, not all technological, formed the grid advancing or retarding these inventions.


How are inventions selected? "…the selecting agents are active, productive individuals capable of making the choices and changes needed to shape the material world as they see fit. The selectors do not represent all segments of society nor are they necessarily concerned with the public's welfare." (204) Individuals are favored over general economics: "… in the final analysis, the arguments put forth on behalf of the economic interpretation are unconvincing, and we are obliged to seek out those cultural factors that fuel the drive for novelty." (210)

The history of technology is not a record of the artifacts fashioned in order to ensure our survival. Instead, it is a testimony to the fertility of the contriving mind and to the multitudinous ways the peoples of the earth have chosen to live. Seen in this light, artifactual diversity is one of the highest expressions of human existence." (208)

The overall view of unceasing technological progress should be discarded. One can argue, rather, a limited progress toward a selected goal by a smallish group of interested people. We should focus on the diversity of the made world, the fertility of the network of technological imagination, and the granduer and antiquity of the network of related artifacts,