A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium

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MIT Press, Feb 26, 2010 - History - 588 pages
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Why does technology change over time, how does it change, and what difference does itmake? In this sweeping, ambitious look at a thousand years of Western experience, Robert Friedelargues that technological change comes largely through the pursuit of improvement--the deep-rootedbelief that things could be done in a better way. What Friedel calls the "culture of improvement" ismanifested every day in the ways people carry out their tasks in life--from tilling fields andraising children to waging war.Improvements can be ephemeral or lasting, and one person'simprovement may not always be viewed as such by others. Friedel stresses the social processes bywhich 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 aseries of narratives of Western technology that begin in the eleventh century and stretch into thetwenty-first. Familiar figures from the history of invention are joined by others--the Italianpreacher who described the first eyeglasses, the dairywomen displaced from their control overcheesemaking, 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 cansometimes have horrific consequences, as improved weaponry makes warfare ever more deadly and thedrive for improving human beings can lead to eugenics and even genocide. The most comprehensiveattempt to tell the story of Western technology in many years, engagingly written and lavishlyillustrated, A Culture of Improvement documents the ways in which the drive for improvement hasshaped our modern world.

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About the author (2010)

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.

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