Future historians will likely commemorate the current era as The Technological Revolution. The 20th century gave birth to electronics, computers, telecommunications, space exploration, medical technology, and materials engineering. The 21st century appears destined to extend the benefits of technology to almost all of the world’s people.
Sadly, not many people are interested in the history of technology. That's not surprising considering the Education Establishment's attitude towards history in general. History has been depicted by many educators, since the 1960s, as an irrelevant collection of names and dates (requiring only "rote memory"). This is what leads some people to assert that the Constitution of the United States (developed through intensive study of all known forms of government) is a "living, breathing" document. Well, I say history is about as relevant as anything could be—it is after all the human race's life story—and there are only two reasons to avoid it: intellectual laziness and the desire to prop up failed ideologies.
The history of technology teaches us how creative people acquire knowledge about the world and apply it to serve human needs. As technology advances, the easiest way for newcomers to learn about a technology will be to trace its historical development. The history of technology also tells us much about the workings of the natural world—often bringing new mysteries to our attention.
It’s crucial that we record the history of technology while the events are fresh, many of the leading actors are living, and fact can still be separated from myth.
Most children are taught in school that there is a single scientific method. It goes something like this: form a hypothesis, design an experiment to test the hypothesis, perform the experiment, and record and analyze the data. This is great if the only goal is to churn out laboratory technicians, but history shows that science owes much of its success to inspiration, theory, and serendipity.
Many people believe that we must either enforce “the scientific method” or return to the Dark Ages. This narrow view of science can only impede discovery and innovation. Charles Townes developed the laser in theory first. By the time he finally constructed a laser he wasn’t performing an experiment—he was already quite certain it would work. The laboratory bench may produce incremental advances, but technological breakthroughs come from the imagination.
History provides ample evidence that you do not need to be thoroughly scientific to be a great technologist. Raymond Damadian, inventor of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), is a young earth creationist. Damadian's unscientific views (re: creation) didn’t stop him from developing the first whole body MRI machine, but many believe those views kept him from winning a Nobel Prize.
Can history help people understand advanced technologies? Imagine that you know little or nothing about electronics but want to learn how mobile phones operate. An engineer can describe the essential components that comprise a mobile phone system and explain how each component does its job. Unfortunately, you will soon find yourself swimming in a sea of acronyms and jargon.
Alternatively, you can trace the mobile phone’s historical development. This approach starts with basic principles (e.g., the discovery of electromagnetic waves), shows how those principles were first put into practice, and continues to describe each incremental advance. The student’s understanding of advanced technology is slowly built layer upon layer, with everything presented in its natural context.
The history of technology, when properly told, includes essential elements that are often otherwise missing. Advanced technology is as much the result of business and market development as scientific progress. The typical mobile phone is what it is today not merely because it was possible, but because it was desirable. Douglas Ring invented cellular radio because the rapid growth of landline telephones suggested—at least to him and some of his colleagues at Bell Labs—a large future market for mobile telephones.
The history of technology also reminds us of the limits of our knowledge. There are advances we expected that haven’t come about such as videophones, household robots, and artificial intelligence. Videophones are technically and economically feasible; people simply aren’t ready for them. Robots are easy to build in theory, but not so easy to design and maintain in practice. Artificial intelligence has not advanced as rapidly as computing overall because AI proponents grossly underestimated what it would take to emulate human intelligence.
Technology is often defined as the application of knowledge. If that’s so, then the history of technology is not just a timeline of key events, but a window into human progress.