The Roots of Progress


Organized into rough categories; within each category, new books are added at the top. Click any title for more commentary or to find where to get the book.

The nature of progress

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World

David Deutsch

A work of philosophy, mostly epistemology, with a bit of quantum physics thrown in. The theme is that all problems are solvable—“anything not forbidden by the laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge”—but that there is no end of problems or solutions, just as there is no end to knowledge or to mistakes. In contrast to both skepticism and “inductionism”, Deutsch promotes “fallibilism”.

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.

Relevant posts: Enlightenment Now: A summary


Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past

J. Storrs Hall

A work combining historical analysis and bold futurism, looking for the causes of the Great Stagnation (including and especially our lack of flying cars) and painting a picture of what a technological future could look like.

Relevant posts: Progress, stagnation, and flying cars

The Rise and Fall of American Growth

Robert J. Gordon

A broad, detailed survey of improvements to the American standard of living over the past 150 years, from 1870 to the present, arguing that growth has slowed in the last 50 years and that we cannot expect high growth to return.

Relevant posts: When life was literally full of crap, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: A summary

Economic history

Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World

Deirdre McCloskey

The second book in McCloskey’s famous “Bourgeois” trilogy, arguing that ideas were the cause of the “Great Enrichment” that began in the 19th century: specifically, a new “dignity and liberty for ordinary people”, and especially for innovators.

The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy

Joel Mokyr

What is the relationship between knowledge, especially science, and technological progress?

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.

Relevant posts: Religious freedom and the Enlightenment, The virtuousness of technology, The Baconian program, The idea of progress

Surveys of technology

The Heroic Age of American Invention

L. Sprague de Camp

A survey of major inventions in the US from the 1830s until World War I, telling the stories of the inventors and what they created. Covers many famous stories such as Edison, Goodyear, Bell, and the Wright brothers, as well as less well-known ones such as Christopher Sholes (the typewriter), Elihu Thompson (electrical transformer), and Samuel Langley (a pioneer of flight before the Wrights).

Relevant posts: How early American inventors funded their ventures

Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History

Penny Le Couteur & Jay Burreson

A mashup of history and chemistry. An episodic book, told in 17 loosely connected chapters, each one about a particular substance or class of substances, from spices to DDT to the Pill. Each chapter tells the chemistry of the substance, complete with diagrams of molecular structure, and its role in history.

Relevant posts: When innovation hits “snooze”

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.

Relevant posts: 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.

Relevant posts: 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.

Relevant posts: Better living through chemistry

Manufacturing & construction

The Epic of Steel

Douglas A. Fisher

A history of steel from pre-historic times through the mid–twentieth century (when the book was published). Covers smelting, refining, and manufacturing techniques.

Relevant posts: Iron: From mythical to mundane, Science and steel

Steel: From Mine to Mill, the Metal that Made America

Brooke C. Stoddard

A brief history of steel combined with a tour of a modern steel-making process, as the subtitle says, from mine to mill. Covers ore mining, smelting in multiple kinds of furnaces, and different casting and rolling processes.

Relevant posts: Iron: From mythical to mundane, One man's junk

Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century

Stephen Fenichell

A history of plastic, from the earliest experiments in the mid-1800s through the environmentalist backlash in the 1990s. Covers all the major developments, including celluoid, Bakelite, nylon, vinyl, Teflon, PET, and more.

Relevant posts: Unsustainable

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

Susan Freinkel

A book about plastic, the objects made from it, and its risks and harms. I became interested in this book through a Scientific American article excerpted from it. That article contained a lot of fascinating history; the book, however is not a history.

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.

Relevant posts: In which I answer your questions about cement, One man's junk, Instant stone (just add water!)

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.

Relevant posts: 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

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.

Relevant posts: Vaclav Smil on “Making the Modern World”


A History of Agriculture in Europe and America

Norman Scott Brien Gras

A comprehensive history of Western agriculture, including many social/political issues bound up with it.

Relevant posts: Advanced stages of agriculture, Six stages of agriculture

Food: A Very Short Introduction

John Krebs

As the title suggests, this is a small book briefly covering a handful of key topics in food. Unlike most of the books in this bibliography, it is not a history but more of a survey, although it does contain some 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.

Relevant posts: One man's junk, Turning air into bread


Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World

Jill Jonnes

The story of the Electricity Wars of the late 1800s, focusing on Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse. This was the period early in the electrical industry in which AC and DC—alternating vs. direct current—were competing to be the standard for power distribution. The story ends around the time of the first hydroelectric power plant, at Niagara Falls in 1895, but the book contains a lengthy epilogue telling what happened to the main characters after that.

Relevant posts: The significance of electricity, Why AC won the Electricity Wars, When innovation hits “snooze”

Energy: A Human History

Richard Rhodes

A history of the industrial use of energy, from the rise of coal mining in 1600s England to the atomic age. Covers topics including the early oil and gas industry, the first pipelines, the first hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls, and the development of nuclear power.

Relevant posts: When life was literally full of crap, One man's junk, The significance of electricity, When innovation hits “snooze”, Early cars: gas, electric & steam, Science and steam

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”.

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


The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge

David McCullough

A history of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, by one of the most popular writers of American history.

Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869

Stephen E. Ambrose

A history of the transcontinental railroad, built in the US in the 1860s. Two private companies built the road, one from Sacramento building east, and one from Omaha building west; they met in the middle near the Great Salt Lake, Utah.

The Locomotive Pioneers: Early Steam Locomotive Development 1801–1851

Anthony Burton

A history of the early development of locomotive engines. Covers the early attempts of Trevithick, Stephenson, and others; but does not go much into broader railroad topics such as the building of track.

Relevant posts: Funding models and progress

Sextant: A Young Man's Daring Sea Voyage and the Men Who Mapped the World's Oceans

David Barrie

Written by a man who sailed a small yacht across the Atlantic as a teenager, this book combines his recollections of that voyage with the history of marine navigation, and tales from the great British and French explorers of the 1700s who created the modern map of the world. Covers the sextant (of course), the problem of longitude, and the voyages of Captain Cook, Bligh (who suffered the mutiny on the Bounty), Vancouver, and Slocum.

Relevant posts: Navigating the high seas

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Dava Sobel

The story of John Harrison and the invention of the marine chronometer, a timepiece accurate and hardy enough to be used on ocean voyages. The chronometer solved the problem of finding longitude at sea, a grand challenge problem of the 1700s.

Relevant posts: Funding models and progress, Navigating the high seas

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914

David McCullough

The story of the creation of the Panama Canal. Covers the original, failed attempt by a French private company, the political revolution in which Panama gained independence from Columbia, and the successful construction of the Canal by the US Army.

Relevant posts: The 13th labor of Hercules

Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate

Rose George

A portrait of life at sea, focusing especially on the merchant marine. Covers everything from how ships are registered under flags (seemingly obscure and pedantic but bizarrely interesting to a curious geek like me), to the effect of big ships on whales, to pirate attacks and kidnappings.

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

Marc Levinson

The story of the shipping container—those standard metal boxes you see on cargo ships, trains, and trucks, carrying goods around the world and integrating the global economy. It describes what the shipping industry was like before the container, in particular, how inefficient and expensive shipping was; how the container got started in the 1950s; and how it eventually, over decades, completely reconfigured the global supply chain.

Trade & finance

The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea

John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge

A history of the corporate form, from its origins in small partnerships through the development of joint-stock companies with limited liability trading on public equity markets.

Relevant posts: Funding models and progress

A History of the Global Stock Market: From Ancient Rome to Silicon Valley

B. Mark Smith

Exactly what it says on the tin: a history of the stock market from its earliest beginnings to the present day.

Relevant posts: Funding models and progress

A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World

William J. Bernstein

A history of trade, from the ancient world to the modern. Covers the Middle Ages, when trade was most active in Asia; the European conquest and expansion starting in the 1500s; and the modern debate over free trade vs. protectionism.

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).

Relevant posts: Funding models and progress, The time machine


Polio: An American Story

David M. Oshinsky

A history of epidemic polio in America during the 20th century, including FDR and the origins of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, Jonas Salk and the first vaccine, and his rival Albert Sabin and his alternate vaccine, developed later (both are in use today).

Relevant posts: Leadership and progress, More on polio and randomized clinical trials, Polio and the controversy over randomized clinical trials

Louis Pasteur: Free Lance of Science

René Dubos

A biography of Louis Pasteur, covering his major achievements and placing them in the context of the origins of microbiology and the germ theory of disease.

Relevant posts: Our weapons against infectious disease: a survey

Smallpox: The Death of a Disease: The Inside Story of Eradicating a Worldwide Killer

D. A. Henderson

The memoirs of D. A. Henderson, who led the World Health Organization’s effort to eradicate smallpox.

Relevant posts: Leadership and progress, Slaying the speckled monster

Defying Providence: Smallpox and the Forgotten 18th-Century Medical Revolution

Arthur Boylston

The story of smallpox inoculation, the technique that preceded vaccination. Covers in detail the early debates around inoculation, how its value was proven, how it was improved especially by the Suttons, and how it led to Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine. It reveals that the famous story of the milkmaids was a myth; the effeciveness of cowpox as a vaccine for smallpox was discovered by inoculation practices.

Relevant posts: Our weapons against infectious disease: a survey, Slaying the speckled monster

Germ Theory: Medical Pioneers in Infectious Diseases

Dr. Robert Gaynes

A history of the development of the germ theory in medicine. Covers the earliest “humoral” theories of Hippocrates and Galen, Avicenna and Fracastoro in the Middle Ages, Leeuwenhoek and his microscope, Jenner and his vaccine, Semmelweis and hand-washing, the amazing accomplishments of Pasteur and Koch, Lister and antiseptics, Erlich and antibiotics.

Relevant posts: Our weapons against infectious disease: a survey

Miracle Cure: The Creation of Antibiotics and the Birth of Modern Medicine

William Rosen

The story of antibiotics, with a focus on the origins of the industry. Beginning in the era before even the germ theory, it tells how pathogens were first identified, and then cures: from Salvorsan, to sulfanilamides, to penicillin, to broad-spectrum antibiotics. It ends with the expansion of the FDA in the 1960s and the establishment of standards for clinical trials.

Relevant posts: Funding models and progress, Our weapons against infectious disease: a survey, When innovation hits “snooze”


Pasteur's Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation

Donald E. Stokes

A book arguing that “basic” and “applied” research are not opposed, but orthogonal. “Pasteur’s quadrant” refers to research that is both “inspired by the quest for fundamental understanding” and simultaneously “inspired by considerations of use”.

Relevant posts: Pasteur's quadrant

Anthropology & sociology

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Jared Diamond

A sweeping historical book attempting to explain what the author sees as the “broadest pattern” of humanity’s ~12,000 years of history since the dawn of agriculture and settled societies. Describes how civilizations evolve basic features such as agriculture, writing, and government, and puts for a theory for why these evolved faster on some continents than others.

Relevant posts: Continental axes and the roots of progress

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.

Relevant posts: Primitive thought

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.

Relevant posts: The most peaceful time in history

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.

Relevant posts: 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.

Relevant posts: The beginning

Other histories

Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress

Hasok Chang

A fascinating story about the development of the thermometer, which turns out to be much more challenging than just putting a drop of mercury in a glass tube and painting a ruler on it.