The Roots of Progress

Categorizing technologies

June 3, 2017

As I read about the Industrial Revolution and about pre-industrial technologies, I’m starting to think about how to categorize them. It helps to break things down into a handful of broad categories at the top level. That way you can tell the story of each one and then integrate those threads into an overall narrative; you can survey a given age easily by looking across the top-level categories, etc.

At the moment I’m working with six top-level categories:

This is far from settled in my mind but it’s working relatively well. I have on my desk a 1000-page Encyclopedia of the History of Technology and I went through the table of contents, and everything seemed to fit.

Manufacturing seems like the broadest and most complex, and might be the most difficult to work with. It encompasses materials, since materials and manufacturing processes are tightly intertwined and the whole point of materials is to make things. It also encompasses construction and architecture. And it encompasses chemicals, which I’m starting to learn are an important part of the story.

“Information” encompasses communication, calculation, and measurement. Fifty years ago this might not have seemed like one category: different machines and companies were used for each. But today these have all converged in the computer—not unlike how fuel and motion technology converged into the “energy” field with the invention of the steam engine.

I suspect in the future, agriculture and medicine may undergo a similar convergence under some form of biotechnology, and I’m considering putting them together in a “biology” category.

One that’s not on this list, but that I’m wondering about, is finance. This doesn’t seem like a “technology”, exactly, but it’s certainly a form of progress, with prehistoric beginnings (the invention of money) all the way through to modern derivatives trading. Along the way there were some milestones, such as the modern corporation, that play an important part in the story of the Industrial Revolution. So the story of finance needs to be told somewhere.

Another category that might come to mind is infrastructure. But it seems to me that rather than a separate category, it’s just a part of the story of multiple categories, mostly transportation (rail, roads, canals) but also energy (power lines) and communication (starting with the telegraph). I’m not quite sure where to put things like water and sewage, those seem like health technologies and maybe should go together with medicine.

Books in this post

An Encyclopedia of the History of Technology