The Roots of Progress


In reverse chronological order; new books are added at the top. Click any book for more commentary or to buy on Amazon.

Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible

William Goetzmann

A history of finance, from ancient Sumer to the present. It covers many topics, from the earliest concepts of compound interest, limited liability, and tradeable ownership, up through the development of finance in medieval Europe, the modern corporation as invented in the late 17th century, and 20th century developments such as the IMF and World Bank. It also discusses the parallel history of finance in China, with many similarities but also interesting differnces (much more centralized and state-controlled).

Mentioned in: The time machine

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Steven Pinker

The message of this book is that reason, science and humanism—which Pinker identifies as the key themes of the Enlightenment—have, historically, led to massive progress in almost every area of life, and that they are our best means of continuing this progress into the future. But these ideals are not consistently upheld, and are often under attack. Therefore, we need to fortify and defend them.

Mentioned in: Enlightenment Now: A summary

Concrete Planet: The Strange and Fascinating Story of the World's Most Common Man-Made Material

Robert Courland

A history of concrete, which is far more interesting than it sounds. Starting with concrete’s prehistoric origins, the book covers its extensive use by the Romans, the development of different types of cements in the Industrial Revolution, and the invention of reinforced concrete. Stories include the making of the first tunnel under a river, the construction of the famous Sydney Opera House, and the creative use of concrete by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Mentioned in: Instant stone (just add water!)

How We Got Here: From Bows and Arrows to the Space Age

Christopher Hallpike

A history of the social and cultural factors that led to our species’ development from primitive tribes to the modern world. Being an anthrpologist who spent many years living in tribal societies, Hallpike puts special emphasis on these tribes and devotes the first several chapters to them, but he also covers the development of the state, of religion, and then of science and industry.

Mentioned in: Primitive thought

Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber

Stephen Yafa

A history of cotton, from antiquity to the present. Some key topics covered include: different kinds of cotton; the mechanization of the textile industry in the early Industrial Revolution under Richard Arkwright; the Lowell mills; Eli Whitney and the cotton gin; the Civil War; the boll weevil and how it was fought both before and after modern agricultural technology.

Mentioned in: Out of whole cloth, Learning with my hands, Why did we wait so long for the cotton gin?, Pesticides and old lace, That Senator really took a beating

The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention

William Rosen

A history of steam power from the 1600s through the steam engines of Thomas Newcomen and James Watt and the later developments that led to steam locomotives. Along the way, it also covers the origins of patent law, which is the real “most powerful idea in the world”.

Mentioned in: The first and true inventor, What was the relationship of the Scientific Revolution to the Industrial?

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Steven Pinker

The story of how and why the world has gotten safer and more peaceful, from tribal societies to today, thanks to the forces of government, commerce, and reason. See my summary.

Mentioned in: The most peaceful time in history

The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler

Thomas Hager

The story of the Haber-Bosch process for creating synthetic ammonia, which is crucial for producing the fertilizer needed to feed the seven billion or so people on Earth today. In Hager’s phrase, it turns air into bread. It’s also the story of the lives of the men who created it, and its consequences for world agriculture and for Germany during the World Wars.

Mentioned in: Turning air into bread

Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization

Vaclav Smil

A concise summary of the materials that are used in pretty much every manufacturing and industrial process, from ancient times to the present. In the later chapters, Smil covers environmental concerns and ways in which we are “dematerializing”: reducing the amount of materials we need to maintain our standard of living.

Mentioned in: Vaclav Smil on “Making the Modern World”

The Ascent Of Man

Jacob Bronowski

The book version of the famous television series by the same name. Bronowski looks at the development of human civilization from nomadic tribes to modern science.

Mentioned in: Nomad life

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

Nicholas Wade

Covers what is known about the earliest hominins, from the first stone tools used by the ancestors of our species millions of years ago; to the first glimmers of more abstract conceptual thought tens of thousands of years ago, as evidenced by art and religion; to the beginnings of settled societies and agriculture. The book relies on relatively recent developments in DNA sequencing to piece together this prehistoric timeline.

Mentioned in: The beginning

An Encyclopedia of the History of Technology

Ian McNeil, editor

An encyclopedia covering, in brief, just about every subject in the history of technology, compiling the works of a few dozen authors. This one is a tome, weighing in at over 1,000 pages.

Mentioned in: Learning with my hands, Categorizing technologies

A Brief History of How the Industrial Revolution Changed the World

Thomas Crump

A general history of the Industrial Revolution. Surprisingly, it’s hard to find good histories of this period; in particular, it’s hard to find concise, one-volume summaries from the beginning of the period to the modern era, that cover the main developments in the whole world (while keeping most of the focus on where the action was, in the UK and then the US). This is the closest one I found.

Mentioned in: Out of whole cloth, Trains and steamboats, The Newcomen steam engine

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm

Lewis Dartnell

A summary of the technologies that the modern industrial world depends on, the basic principles of their operation, and how one might re-establish them if the world were to suffer some global shock that led to the breakdown of civilization.

Mentioned in: Better living through chemistry

A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy

Joel Mokyr

This book was pivotal in the launch of this project and this site. It is about how the Enlightenment, between about 1500 and 1700, set the stage for the Industrial Revolution. Special attention is given to Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton.

Mentioned in: Religious freedom and the Enlightenment, The virtuousness of technology, The Baconian program, The idea of progress