The Roots of Progress

Bibliography

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

Energy: A Human History

Richard Rhodes

A history of the industrial use of energy, beginning with the rise of coal mining in 1600s England. I’m still in the middle of this book and will update this entry when finished, but for now I’m liking it a lot. The story is told concisely and is therefore powerful, and the author describes problems and solutions more consistently and clearly than most.

Mentioned in: Early cars: gas, electric & steam, Science and steam

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.

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.

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.

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.

Mentioned in: The 13th labor of Hercules

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.

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.

Mentioned in: Unsustainable

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.

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.

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.

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