Paths of Fire

Paths of Fire: An Anthropologist's Inquiry into Western Technology

Robert McC. Adams
Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 360
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    Paths of Fire
    Book Description:

    Technology, perhaps the most salient feature of our time, affects everything from jobs to international law yet ranks among the most unpredictable facets of human life. Here Robert McC. Adams, renowned anthropologist and Secretary Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution, builds a new approach to understanding the circumstances that drive technological change, stressing its episodic, irregular nature. The result is nothing less than a sweeping history of technological transformation from ancient times until now. Rare in antiquity, the bursts of innovations that mark the advance of technology have gradually accelerated and now have become an almost continuous feature of our culture. Repeatedly shifting in direction, this path has been shaped by a host of interacting social, cultural, and scientific forces rather than any deterministic logic. Thus future technological developments, Adams maintains, are predictable only over the very short term.

    Adams's account highlights Britain and the United States from early modern times onward. Locating the roots of the Industrial Revolution in British economic and social institutions, he goes on to consider the new forms of enterprise in which it was embodied and its loss of momentum in the later nineteenth century. He then turns to the early United States, whose path toward industrialization initially involved considerable "technology transfer" from Britain. Propelled by the advent of mass production, world industrial leadership passed to the United States around the end of the nineteenth century. Government-supported research and development, guided partly by military interests, helped secure this leadership.

    Today, as Adams shows, we find ourselves in a profoundly changed era. The United States has led the way to a strikingly new multinational pattern of opportunity and risk, where technological primacy can no longer be credited to any single nation. This recent trend places even more responsibility on the state to establish policies that will keep markets open for its companies and make its industries more competitive. Adams concludes with an argument for active government support of science and technology research that should be read by anyone interested in America's ability to compete globally.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2222-5
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. 1 Paths of Fire: The Idea of Technological Change
    (pp. 3-35)

    Modernity, while it envelops and defi nesus, has as its conceptual essence only an evolving ambience and many loosely related states of mind. Few of its more specific attributes are closely coupled to shared perceptions or meanings. Yet our modern world is inconceivable in the absence of a long series of technological achievements that are held in common and largely taken for granted.

    As with other human products, most new technologies were invented and applied to serve immediate ends. Continuously shaped by human design and use, their introduction also modified prior contexts of design and use. Yet the process of...

  6. 2 The Useful Arts in Western Antiquity
    (pp. 36-68)

    An account of technological change with any pretense of comprehensiveness probably should begin far back in the early hominid past. This book makes no such all-embracing claim. The end of this chapter will carry us almost to the threshold of an industrial age in the early eighteenth century, while permanently narrowing the focus of the more concentrated chapters that follow to England and the United States. But a long backward look is more than merely congenial to an author who for several decades made his living as an archaeologist. It introduces, if only in more impressionistic outline, a strikingly similar...

  7. 3 Technology and the New European Society
    (pp. 69-103)

    The Industrial Revolution was the gigantic wave of change that initiated the modern epoch. Getting underway slowly during the last third of the eighteenth century, it permanently transformed economic and social life beyond all recognition. Britain will be forever identified not only as its hearth but for much of the following century as the major propulsive force behind the widening ripples of industrialization that moved outward across both Europe and the North Atlantic. Yet natural and almost inevitable as this now seems, it was surely not anticipated at the time and can be understood only in retrospect.

    As late as...

  8. 4 England as the Workshop of the World
    (pp. 104-137)

    The onset of the Industrial Revolution, while an epochal transformation in any longer view, involved no sudden or visible overturning of the established order. Many contributory streams of change had converged and unobtrusively gathered force during the first two-thirds or so of the eighteenth century. Leading elements of technological change presently began to stand out—in engines and applications of rotary power, in the production of iron and steel, and most importantly in new textile machinery. But their sources and significance lay primarily in interactions with a wider matrix of other, earlier or contemporaneous changes.

    As we have seen, these...

  9. 5 Atlantic Crossing: The American System Emerges
    (pp. 138-172)

    A shared pool of available technology, its basic features all held in common, was among the many cultural continuities extending from Britain to its American colonies through much of the eighteenth century. Entirely absent at the birth of the new Republic, however, were most of the rapidly crystallizing preconditions for the mother country’s impending Industrial Revolution. Slowly at first but with gathering speed, they were selectively stolen, borrowed, or imitated, perforce incorporated into new institutional settings, and then increasingly modified, supplemented, or wholly replaced to meet a different set of challenges. Within seventy years or so, borrowing had become reciprocal....

  10. 6 The United States Succeeds to Industrial Leadership
    (pp. 173-211)

    The Civil War definesthe beginning of a new watershed in American economic and technological history, a thunderous entry upon the uncharted landscape of modernity. In an unexpectedly sanguinary, all-out struggle, its logic and momentum forcefully submerged, without entirely displacing, earlier, regionally concentrated opposition to growing national integration. Similarly anticipated by few at the outset was the abolition of slavery. Meanwhile, having made a major contribution to victory, the North’s superior industrial base and logistical mastery helped to precipitate a confident new, national pursuit of international industrial and technological ascendancy.

    So much is common knowledge. Most historical accounts of this great...

  11. 7 The Competitive Global System
    (pp. 212-252)

    American industrial technology in our own era differs sharply from its predecessors in a number of major ways. Most apparent, leaving aside its obviously unprecedented scale and complexity, is the rapidity with which it changes, and with which new innovations find additional, unanticipated applications. Beyond the most elementary processing of raw materials, very little of what we produce or how we produce it has remained untouched by radical change over the last half-century.

    Of comparable importance is the ascendancy of research, or less restrictively Research and Development (R & D), as a fundamental, ongoing component, no longer merely an adjunct,...

  12. 8 New Paths: Technological Change in a Borderless World
    (pp. 253-278)

    The general course of technological advance, as it emerges from this study, has never been an orderly, predictable process. Technology itself is a multilevel phenomenon. Moving upward from a slowly evolving infrastructure of tools and techniques that has played little part in our account, one enters a more dynamic, vital field in which it is the more consciously designed battery of reproducible elements that plays the critical part in putting into effect every practical policy and purpose. Here, where technology is identified with systematic processes of analysis, choice, and implementation of plans and programs, it is inextricably a part of...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 279-300)
  14. References Cited
    (pp. 301-326)
  15. Index
    (pp. 327-332)