Ruth Cowan attempts to show how technology has developed since the colonial days through the present trends of biotechnology. This is a daunting task and it is pulled off as well as can be expected. There is a lot of information to be found here but a great deal more is missing. This book is still the best general overview on the history of technology and while more can be done this is a good start. If you want to understand how technology shaped our society you can't go wrong with this book.
The early chapters on the colonial economy are very well done and tightly analyzed. After that it starts to spread apart a little and the technology jumps around. The transportation revolution chapter is one of the more disappointing for me. While she does a decent job on the railroads she completely misses the significance of the canals on the early development in America. Her chapters on innovation and technological systems provide nice summaries of the relevant literature. Most of the chapters leading up to the twentieth century are filler that really don't address too many technological issues. The automobile chapter tries to do an amazingly quick history of cars and a lot gets left out in the process with even more wrong. The communications chapter does a better job of showing the evolution while looking at the technologies. The history of the military-academic-industrial complex provides an interesting look at how the Manhattan Project and NASA changed the way technology was developed. Cowan does a very good job on this particular topic and it is probably her best chapter in the later part of the book. The final chapter is on biotechnology and covers genetic corn, birth control and penicillin. These advancements while important are not really given justice.
Very broad overview of American technology starting with the beginning of the United States all the way through fairly current biotechnology. There are a few good stories in here and the second half is by far the best. I really liked the sections on the railroad, the automobile, radio communication, penicillin, and the section on the birth control pill was by far the best. Is it true that doctors and researchers weren't allowed to talk about birth control till past the early 1950's in the United States? Here's an interesting quote... "In short, by 1880 if by some weird accident all the batteries that generated electricity for telegraph lines had suddenly run out, the economic and social life of the nation would have faltered. Trains would have stopped running; businesses with branch offices would have stopped functioning; newspapers could have not covered distant events; the president could not have communicated with his European ambassadors; the stock market would have to close; family members separated by long distances could have not relayed important news to each other. By the turn of the century, the telegraph system was both literally and figuratively a network, linking together various aspects of national life- making people increasingly dependent on one another." Y2K, ay?
It's a hum-drum historical narration burying the creative impulse. The author says things that are neither here nor there, that are non-committal and lacking opinion and character. Competing ideas are portrayed but a debate of those ideas is not evoked and blandness sets in. Facts presented are inconsequential; they are not argumentatively related to a meaningful structure. They are not given a constructive home. Hence, meaning is somewhat missing, as meaning lives in the synapses. As the etymology suggests, things do not follow one another to build up a case or a vision; therefore a case does not follow. The book is uncritical, lacking curiosity for the criteria of judgement, and in need of a more sustained analysis. The inevitable result of uncritical writing is a boring and unstimulating outcome.
Unlike normal event-name-date-place-next event history books, this one is written to be read. It draws the reader into the story of the social and cultural interaction with the development of technology. It is a great read for anyone interested in how we got to where we are.