In reverse chronological order; new books are added at the top. Click any book for more commentary or to buy on Amazon.
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.
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: When innovation hits “snooze”
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.
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
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: Navigating the high seas
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.
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
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”
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
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.
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.
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.
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: The time machine
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
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: Instant stone (just add water!)
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
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.
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”.
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 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: Turning air into bread
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”
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.