History of the little things

This is going to be one of those blog posts where I indulge in thinking out loud. I will ramble and meander over and through some aspects of something that has been occupying my thoughts for quite sometime without necessarily reaching any very definite conclusions.

As I said the topic I’m about to discuss has occupied my thoughts for quite sometime but this post was triggered by an interesting blog post by Rachel Laudan, one time historian of science, currently food historian and most recently the author of the excellent Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History. In her blog post Rachel discusses the uses to which gourds have been put in the history of cooking. Depending on how you cut it the same gourd can become a spoon or a bowl or a flask (and much, much more. Read the article!). Although this is an article about the history of food and cooking it is at the same time an article about the history of technology. All of the things that Rachel describes are tools and the history of technology is the history of human beings as toolmakers and the tools that they have made.

Here, from Senegal on the west bulge of Africa, is a gourd cut in half to make a spoon, holding millet porridge with raisins. The tablespoon gives the scale.


The thought that Rachel’s post triggered is my answer to the oft stated question, what is the greatest, most important, most significant or whatever human invention? Most people answer the wheel, or the light bulb or the steam engine or the motorcar or the airplane or something else along those lines. Some sort of, for its time, high tech development that they think changed the course of history. My, I’ll admit deliberately provocative answer, is the sewing needle; a, for most people, insignificant everyday object produced in factories by the millions. An object that most people normally don’t really give any thought to, unless they are desperately searching for one to sew on that button that fell off their best jacket an hour before that all important interview.

So, how would I justify my chose of the sewing needle as the most important human invention? The sewing needle made it possible for humanity to make clothes way back in the depths of prehistory. The oldest known needles go back at least 50,000 years but they are arguably much older. Making clothes was a necessary prerequisite of early humans moving out of tropical Africa into less clement climes. Naturally before the invention of the needle humans could simply wrap themselves in animal skins or furs joined together by primitive buttons or toggles. However a tailored and sewn set of clothes allows the wearer to move easily, to hunt or to run when threatened, things that are difficult when simply wrapped in a heap of skins or furs.

Sewing is just one of the technologies that people don’t automatically thing of when the term history of technology is mentioned. Others from the same domestic area are weaving, crochet and knitting and yes crochet and knitting are technologies. I have a suspicion that such domestic technologies get ignored in the popular conception of the history of technology is because they are women’s activities. In the popular imagination technology is masculine; man is the toolmaker, woman is the carer. The strange thing about this essentially sexist view of the history of technology is that the domestic technologies, clothes making, cooking etc. play a very central role in human survival and human progress. Humans can survive without cars but a naked human being without cooked food in a hostile environment is on a fast track to the grave. These small, everyday aspects of human existence need to receive a much greater prominence in the popular history of technology.

It is not just in the history of technology that the small and everyday gets ignored in #histSTM accounts. A recent discussion on an Internet mailing list complained about the fact that the discussion of the 100th anniversary of the Mount Wilson Observatory Hooker telescope spent a lot of time discussing Edwin Hubble’s discoveries made with it but wasted not a single word on the technicians who built and installed it or those who operated it. Without the work of these people Hubble wouldn’t have discovered anything. In general in the popular accounts of #histSTM the instrument makers and technicians rarely if ever get mentioned, just the big name scientists. Most of those big name scientists would never have become big name without the services of the instrument makers and technicians but throughout history most of them don’t just remain in the background they remain nameless. We need to do more to emphasise the fact that developments in science and technology are not just made by big names but by whole teams of people many of whom remain, in our fame obsessed society, anonymous.

Another area where popular #histSTM falls down is in the dissemination and teaching of science and technology. People tend not to consider the teachers and the textbook authors when discussing the history of science. These people, however, play an important and very central role in the propagation of new developments and discoveries. Students of a scientific discipline tend on the whole to gain their knowledge of the latest developments in their discipline from their teachers and the textbooks and not from reading the original books and papers of the discoverers. Science is propagated down the generation by these background workers far more than by the “great” men or women who hog the headlines in #histSTM. A good example for such an important teacher and textbook author is Christoph Clavius, about whom I wrote my first actual #histSTM post here on the Renaissance Mathematicus. Another good example is Philipp Melanchthon, who as a teacher and textbook author introduced the mathematical sciences into the newly founded Lutheran Protestant education system; Clavius did the same for the Catholic education system.

Christopher Clavius (1538–1612)
Source: Wikimedia Common



Portrait of Philip Melanchthon, 1537, by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Napoleon, a major fan and supporter of the sciences, recognised the importance of good textbooks in the propagation of science. When he established new universities in Paris he insisted that the leading French scientists and mathematicians, whose very active patron he was, write the new textbooks for his new institutions. A model we could well copy.

If we are to progress beyond the big names, big event, hagiographic presentations of #histSTM, and we seriously need to do so, then we should not just look towards the minor, less well-known or completely unknown, scientists in the second row, as I have endeavoured to do over the years here, but even further down the fame tree to the instrument makers, technicians, teachers, textbook writers and others who assists the scientists and propagate and disseminate their discoveries, the facilitators. There are already scholars who have and do research and publish about these facilitators and the reviewers and science communicators need to do more to bring this work to the fore and into the public gaze and not just promote the umpteenth Newton biography.





Filed under History of science, History of Technology, Myths of Science

6 responses to “History of the little things

  1. Great post! I love to learn!

  2. Nice post, Thony. Reminded me of an assignment I was once set in school, which I wrote about here: http://richardcarter.com/bacon-and-x/

  3. I’m with you on the needle thing 🙂 Ok, I’m biased being a textile artist but it never stops to amaze me how many things could be done with just a needle and thread.
    And I love the whole post, of course 🙂

  4. In the context of the Mount Wilson Observatory Hooker telescope, it is worth noting that all the technicians who built, installed and operated it would not had had that opportunity, had it not been for the vision of George Ellery Hale and his skill in persuading a series of rich men to fund ever-larger telescopes.

  5. brodix

    It does go to how thought is reductionist, such that we focus on the highlights and edit everything else. Presumably extracting signal from the noise, but also isolating objects and ideas from context. Which, carried to extremes, loses the very purpose and meaning that brought them to our attention in the first place.

  6. Bob

    This reminds me of Davis Baird’s excellent book *Thing Knowledge* which discusses the contributions of tinkering device makers to the sum of human knowledge, and argues persuasively for a reappraisal of their contributions.

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