May 12, 2019
The deeper I get into this project, the harder it is to find good books.
At the start, I found some OK ones, such as the books I read on cotton and concrete, and some excellent ones, such as The Alchemy of Air. I was disappointed in the first book on plastics I read, but the second one was OK.
At that point I was sampling topics somewhat at random by what looked interesting. By now, though, the big picture is starting to come into focus, and I’m going through more systematically to fill in the gaps: agriculture and medicine, railroads and automobiles, mass manufacturing, etc.
And I’m shocked at how hard it is to find good books on some of these topics. The first book I read on steel left me very fuzzy on the details of important processes such as Bessemer, so I’m now on my second (out of print, only four copies available on Amazon). The first book I got on railroads was so boring I quit after a few chapters; all it did was list which railroads got built where by whom on which dates. I picked up another book, which is better, but still has bizarre priorities; it omits almost all the details of surveying thousands of miles of track, but contains the exact wheel diameter and piston arrangement of every engine built in the 1800s.
And agriculture is even worse. So far I haven’t even found a book that purports or attempts to be on the topic I want: the history of agricultural technology and progress. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of books in this field, but none of them are right: some are political history considered from the viewpoint of agriculture, like how farmers participated in peasants’ revolts; many are too narrowly focused on one time and place; one was so focused on economic data and different theories of technology diffusion that the actual innovations got buried.
This is all so frustrating that I feel the need to lay out my requirements for a great work of industrial/technological history aimed at the general reader. It should:
Tell a coherent story and not be arbitrarily limited in scope (either in place or time, e.g., “Agriculture in North Carolina 1860–1910”).
Describe what came before the technology existed, setting the context for why it was needed and what it evolved out of.
Explain the problem that the technology solved, how people dealt with the problem, and why those approaches were inadequate.
Explain the solution itself, in terms the layman can understand, but in as much technical detail as possible for that audience.
Describe the impact of the technology, including its applications (for instance, a book on steel should explain what things were made out of steel, and why this was an improvement over previous materials).
Quantify whenever possible. Better, visualize: show graphs of performance increasing or costs decreasing over time.
Eliminate almost all other detail that does not contribute to these goals, save perhaps for a few entertaining side stories or intriguing historical connections.
This is the standard I aspire to on this blog, although I haven’t been as good at impact as I have at problem-solution (and I’ve done very little quantification so far). Most books fall woefully short.
If you sympathize with these priorities, please promote them to your favorite technology historian. And if you read any books that meet these criteria, please let me know!
Social media link image credit: Flickr / Abhi Sharma, CC BY-SA 2.0
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