A Culture of Improvement
Why does technology change over time, how does it change, and what difference does it make? In this sweeping, ambitious look at a thousand years of Western experience, Robert Friedel argues that technological change comes largely through the pursuit of improvement—the deep-rooted belief that things could be done in a better way. What Friedel calls the "culture of improvement" is manifested every day in the ways people carry out their tasks in life—from tilling fields and raising children to waging war.
Improvements can be ephemeral or lasting, and one person’s improvement may not always be viewed as such by others. Friedel stresses the social processes by which we define what improvements are and decide which improvements will last and which will not. These processes, he emphasizes, have created both winners and losers in history.
Friedel presents a series of narratives of Western technology that begin in the eleventh century and stretch into the twenty-first. Familiar figures from the history of invention are joined by others—the Italian preacher who described the first eyeglasses, the dairywomen displaced from their control over cheesemaking, and the little-known engineer who first suggested a grand tower to Gustav Eiffel. Friedel traces technology from the plow and the printing press to the internal combustion engine, the transistor, and the space shuttle. Friedel also reminds us that faith in improvement can sometimes have horrific consequences: improved weaponry makes warfare ever more deadly and the drive for improving human beings can lead to eugenics and even genocide. The most comprehensive attempt to tell the story of Western technology in many years, engagingly written and lavishly illustrated, A Culture of Improvement documents the ways in which the drive for improvement has shaped our modern world.
About the Author
Robert Friedel is Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland. He is the author of Pioneer Plastic: The Making and Selling of Celluloid, Edison's Electric Light, and Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty.
"Friedel's dazzling tour de force describes almost every aspect of technology.", Joel Mokyr, Journal of Interdisciplinary History
"Robert Friedel ... can not only impart the lesser-known details of a familiar story but masterfully show how strange and wonderful it is that things happened the way they did.", Adam Keiper, The Wall Street Journal
"A rare, detailed, nontheoretical survey that exposes the veins of invention that run through Western culture, creating an astonishing picture of achievement through its careful accumulation of small details. Under [Mr. Friedel's] firm touch it begins to be possible to feel something like the primal pulse of this culture.", Edward Rothstein, The New York Times
"By virtue of its range, quality, length (nearly 600 pages) and comprehensiveness, Robert Friedel's book will go to the top of the list as the standard text for an introductory Charlemagne-to-George-Bush course on the history of technology."—Times Higher Education Supplement
"[Robert Friedel] can not only impart the lesser-known details of a familiar story but masterfully show how strange and wonderful it is that things happened the way they did." Wall Street Journal
"...[T]his book is also a rare, detailed, nontheoretical survey that exposes the veins of invention that run through Western culture, creating an astonishing picture of achievement through its careful accumulation of small details. Mr. Friedel surveys the kinds of inventions and technologies that developed in the West over centuries, compiling a roster of innovation that encompasses everything from textiles to time telling. Under his firm touch it begins to be possible to feel something like the primal pulse of this culture." Edward Rothstein The New York Times
"From steam engines to calico printing, from cheesemaking to supersonic flight, this is the one place to go if you are fascinated by technology and want to know how it has shaped the modern world. In The Culture of Improvement, Robert Friedel has elegantly synthesized decades of scholarly research in the history of technology into a lively and insightful account of modernity."
Ruth Schwartz Cowan, Janice and Julian Bers Professor of the History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania, author of The Social History of American Technology
"This is a splendid book, recalling Mumford's Technics and Civilization in its scope and erudition. It challenges us to think carefully about the idea of progress, the 'culture of improvement,' and the uneasy relationship that persists between freedom, power, and social responsibility in the modern technological world."
Merritt Roe Smith, Cutten Professor of the History of Technology, MIT
Finalist, 2008 Henry Paolucci / Walter Bagehot Book Award given by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.