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Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance (Cornell Studies in Comparative History) Paperback – August 21, 1990

ISBN-13: 978-0801497605 ISBN-10: 0801497604

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Product Details

  • Series: Cornell Studies in Comparative History
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press (August 21, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801497604
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801497605
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #368,098 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"'Remarkable' is an adjective that is most appropriate for this study. Broad in interpretation, rich in detail, and supported by a wealth of information, Michael Adas's work will command the attention of every scholar of modern imperialism, every student of the broad subject of 'technology.' . . . Adas offers an example of popular history at its very best, which is cultural history exquisitely constructed of detailed research, a well-designed overarching theme, and nicely polished prose. . . . It will long be pivotal in all discussions that revolve around the technology and culture of modern European expansion. In sum, this is a most compelling, splendid book."—American Historical Review

"Provocative and fascinating. . . . Adas's deft use of quotation gives the missionaries, travelers, explorers, administrators, and teachers their authentic voices. He provides a wealth of documentation. One learns things worth knowing on every page. . . . One leaves Machines as the Measure of Men persuaded by its essential analysis: that mastery of nature lay at the heart of Europe's comparison of itself to others. As an intellectual history of French and British assessments of Africa, China, and India, the book is wonderfully informative and nuanced. It will alter the debate about the history of Europe's relationship to the rest of the world."—New York Times Book Review

"The terrain of Adas's magnificent book is vast. He starts with the first encounters of intrepid European explorers in the seventeenth century and ends with the seeds of doubt which the Great War in Europe sowed in the western civilizing process. . . . A vast range of sources are cited. Alternatives to the predominant ideology of western scientific and technological progress are explored, and the potential for diffusion of science and technology into different third world societies is also illuminated."—Times Higher Education Supplement

"A remarkable book that thoroughly recasts our understanding of the colonial encounter. Adas dissects the ideology that underwrote the imperial hubris of Northern Europe with rare breadth and insights."—James C. Scott, Yale University

About the Author

Michael Adas is Abraham E. Voorhees Professor of History and Board of Governors' Chair at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. He is the author most recently of Dominance by Design: Technological Imperatives and America's Civilizing Mission.

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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Roger D. Launius VINE VOICE on May 7, 2005
Why is it that Europe explored, conquered, and created colonies in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and islands around the world? Why not the other way around? The answer, for historian Michael Adas of Rutgers University, rests with the development of western science and technology, and the manner in which these systems of knowledge were understood and used. Indeed, Adas is most concerned with how Europeans employed these understandings to relate to the non-Europeans they encountered. Dividing the book in three parts--before the industrial revolution, the age of industrialization, and the twentieth century--Adas brilliantly analyzes the change over time of how Europeans related to these other cultures. Always, as he finds by unpacking explorers' and other observers' accounts, Europeans expressed superiority for the others they found. Sometimes they claimed moral and social superiority but at other times, and increasingly as time progressed, they asserted scientific and technical preeminence. As European industrialization took hold, the question of superiority moved almost exclusively from a moral basis to a material one, based on the creation of the more complex machines that emerged beginning in the seventeenth century.

Adas spends the majority of this challenging book building a complex and highly significant story of colonial justifications. He uses a broad range of sources from philosophers and thinkers such as Voltaire to explorers to such proponents of British imperialism as Rudyard Kipling to show the evolution of the colonial ideal. What emerges is a portrait, embraced by the Europeans, of Europe as clearly preeminent in the world and having the responsibility to civilize and christianize the "backward" peoples of the Earth.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By M. A. Krul on October 23, 2010
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Michael Adas' excellent book "Machines as the Measure of Men" says all about the topic: it is an extremely thorough and systematic study of the role of ideas of technological and scientific superiority in the European outlook on non-European peoples. Covering the historical gamut from the time of Columbus to (briefly) post-WWII developments and including an absolutely stunning array of sources, studies and quotations to buttress its thesis, it is bound to impress even specialists in the field, let alone general readers - and given it won the 1991 prize of the Society for the History of Technology, it seems to have done so. But although the material is gone over with a breadth and depth of learning that is impressive even for a specialized monograph, it is very accessible to the general reader, not in the least place due to Adas' extensive use of quotations from political and literary sources. This makes it also a very strong book as popular history on the experience and ideology of European imperialism.

Adas' main thesis is that European ideologies of superiority and dominance, justifying first exploratory-exploitational and later explicitly colonialist enterprises, were founded first and foremost on using a ranking of peoples and cultures in terms of the level of science and technology achieved by them. As has been pointed out by other historians as well, the European attitude to China is a good example; in the 16th and 17th centuries, when Europe compared fairly modestly with China in terms of economic performance but also in terms of technological accomplishments, China was generally seen as a highly sophisticated and superior realm with almost perfect good government and containing a wise and enterprising people, who only happened unfortunately not to be Christians.
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By Stephen C. Baer on January 20, 2014
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A fascinating book about colonization, race, science, technology. Europeans, Chinese, Indians, Africans and more. Adas suggests machines determine everything.
Europeans, white men, have ridden these machines they invented to dominate the world. Adas’s question is who can build more machines. He examines colonization in his question about race and technology. The French and English, great colonizers argued endlessly in the 19th Century over the natives of Africa, India and even China. Who can catch on to the science of the European? The Indians and the Chinese probably can but few hold out hope for the Africans. The book was published 25 years ago; a second edition would certainly confirm the positive view on India and China. Adas is a relentless researcher, his foot notes indicate a tireless reader and the few I was acquainted with, novels of Joseph Conrad and George Orwell gave me insight.
Colonization and mechanization are set back by World War I. Many question “progress”. How could this slaughter in the trenches, Europeans by other Europeans, be progress? Why would any Native society wish to follow the Europeans after that?
Machines as the Measure of Man is of great interest today as we seek to end our enormous use of fossil fuel. A dilemma for a society dependant on machines that burn fossil fuels. Indeed progress has been our success dropping old solar ways for machine ways. Cars not horses, light bulbs not daylight. We tie ourselves in knots pursuing solar energy that impersonates fossil fuels, finding some way to keep our all powerful machines running but on solar energy not fossil fuels. The colonists have run out of colonies on which to ply their magic so must colonize their own countries, snubbing their own earlier solar civilization.
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