Technology and People Make History
Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev was the first social scientist to notice that
technologies are invented in clusters.
Kondratiev argued that these flurries of creativity cause major economic growth
spurts beginning 10 to 20 years later and lasting 25 to 35 years each. Thus,
Kondratiev subscribed to a form of technological determinism, the belief that
technology is the major force shaping human society and history.
James Watt invented the steam engine in Britain in 1766. It was the main driving
force in the mines, mills, factories, and railways of the Industrial Revolution.
Gottlieb Daimler invented the internal combustion engine in Germany in 1883. It
was the foundation of two of the world’s biggest industries: automobiles and
John Atanasoff was among the first people to invent the computer in 1939 at Iowa
State College (now University). It utterly transformed the way we work, study, and
entertain ourselves. It also put the spurs to one of the most sustained economic
If we probe a little deeper into the development of any of the technologies mentioned
above, we notice a pattern: They did not become engines of economic growth until
social conditions allowed them to do so.
The British computer, Colossus, helped decipher secret German codes in the last two
years of the war and played an important role in the Allied victory.
Technology and society influence each other. Scientific discoveries, once adopted on a
wide scale, often transform societies. But scientific discoveries are turned into useful
technologies only when social need demands it.
How High Tech Became Big Tech
Enjoying a technological advantage usually translates into big profits for businesses
and military superiority for countries.
In the nineteenth century, gaining technological advantage was still inexpensive. It
took only modest capital investment, a little knowledge about the best way to
organize work, and a handful of highly trained workers to build a shop to
manufacture stirrups or even steam engines.
Mass-producing cars, sending a person to the moon, and other feats of twentieth-
and twenty-first century technology require enormous capital investment, detailed
attention to the way work is organized, and legions of technical experts.
The time lag between new scientific discoveries and their technological application is
Personal interests, individual creativity, and the state of a field’s intellectual
development still influence the direction of inquiry. This is especially true for
theoretical work done in universities, as opposed to applied research funded by
governments and private industry.