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The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900

3.60  ·  Rating details ·  327 ratings  ·  54 reviews
From the books of H.G. Wells to the press releases of NASA, we are awash in cliched claims about high technology's ability to change the course of history. Now, in The Shock of the Old, David Edgerton offers a startling new and fresh way of thinking about the history of technology, radically revising our ideas about the interaction of technology and society in the past and in ...more
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published January 22nd 2007 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published December 7th 2006)
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a history of technology in the 20th century, full of gems like the German army having more horses and yet advanced into Russia in 1941 even more slowly than Napoleon in 1812.
the arguement her basically is that ubiquity of use equals importance hence the washing machine is way more important than the moon landings, an opinion I was convinced of through doing handwashing ( powered by a good glas of barleywine sold to me by a sweet middle aged woman in a booth who had the number and placement
Courtney Stoker
Dec 30, 2009 rated it really liked it
The Shock of the Old makes you think. I read it in a history of technology course, and many of my classmates were quick to dismiss it. History majors most of them, they were put off by Edgerton's anti-American politics. I found it a little refreshing to see a history book that not only focused on the everyday, practical use of technologies (as opposed to focusing mainly on European-American military innovations like computers and bombs) and wasn't afraid to get political. All history books have an ...more
Alex Sarll
"Much of what is written on the history of technology is for boys of all ages. This book is a history for grown-ups of all ages." As that opening sentence indicates, this is a book that wants to show you Everything You Know Is Wrong - and as often as not, it succeeds. The Nazi invasion of Russia used more horses than Napoleon's had. A battleship which predated the Second World War also fought in the First Gulf War - and this for the Americans, too. The humble machete only came into its own as an ...more
Jul 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
The perspective in this book is novel and convincing. Edgerton argues that the history of technology is the history of what technologies people actually use, and how they use them - not (or not just) the history of whiz-bang inventions.

There is plenty of interesting historical analysis in here, and lots of unusually rendered examples. Sometimes the writing is a little scattered and plodding, which is my only reason for giving the book 4 instead of 5 stars.
Edgerton provides an excellent thought exercise. Reconsider the way you think about progress, change, technology, and the way that societies evolve. The central thesis seems to be there is a lot of inaccurate or deceptive hype about the way technology is used over time and the way techn does (not) re-shape society. Edgerton contends that old technologies continue to dominate in terms of volume, relevance, and usefulness long after most people (including elites) think they do. Old social power st ...more
Aug 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
The Shock of the Old : Technology and Global History Since 1900 (2007) by David Edgerton is a fascinating book about how technology is actually used. The book carefully looks at how many technologies, like horses peaked well after their replacements were also in service.

Edgerton is a professor of the History of Science at Imperial College. He knows his subject deeply and brings up many fascinating facts throughout the book and his thesis, that we focus on inventions rather than use t
Jan 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
Written in 2006, this history of technology looks and the subject from the point of view of how how things are used. This is interesting because often inventions take a long time to be adopted - and this can vary based on where the users are. For instance, the usage of horses in industry in Finland peaked in 1950. (It’s a bit like watching QI in that it challenges lots of your assumptions, and in fact you could get a couple of series out of stories in this book, like the impact the sewing machin ...more
William Sherlock
This is a very interesting book with technology perspectives not found in other similar books. For example, there is an entire chapter about maintenance, which only gets a brief, if any mention in most books on this topic.
One point that did become clear is the narrow focus of discussion about global trends in the global nature of technology. In which the new and high tech in western countries is the dominant theme. This book would be a good primer for anyone trying to trade in ROW, rest of
Sharad Pandian
A really readable book that succeeds marvellously in its aim to "disturb our sense of technological time, and of what is significant."
Tim Kordas
Mar 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
The "killing" chapter is somewhat hard to read -- but it was certainly interesting to read the basic background on how many animals (including humans) can be efficiently killed per unit time.

Overall, re-visiting the significance of "popular" inventions was super-interesting.
Jul 03, 2016 rated it did not like it
Edgerton takes a position opposing the conventional on the significance of technology in history. This is unfortunate. His definition of "significance" is bewilderingly silly and utterly indefensible.

Case in point. He cites that it was determined that 19th century railways increased the output of the US economy by approximately 5% of the US GDP. This is an enormous number, but Edgerton dismisses 5% GDP growth as insignificant by making a 1 year calculation and comparing it with the GDP without
Sep 28, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2016
Things move slower than we think. Could have made that point in an article.
I read this for a course in history of technology. It is not a book I would read by myself, but I'm glad I powered through it. The book makes excellent points about the problem in how history of technology is told today (as a series of inventions). His point, that history is more complex than that, is an excellent one and he backs it up with several examples that goes against the common view we have today. The book is shocking (hence the title) on many areas and a lot of stuff you've been taken ...more
Tony Fitzpatrick
Technology is usually thought of as a modern phenomenon, primarily associated with the first world, and offering benefits that sweep away the inventions of the past. This book aimed to show that our pre-conceptions of technological improvement, and how it is driven using research, invention and other progress, are misplaced. Successful applications of technology frequently adopt past concepts and ideas, reuse long established techniques, and are always the result of borrowing, sharing and co-ope ...more
Dec 28, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: engineering
This book attempts to correct what the author thinks are biases in the historiography of twentieth-century technology. He wants to shift the emphasis from invention to actual use and from production to maintenance. Oftentimes something was invented in one country but used elsewhere, or many years after the so-called superior alternative technologies appeared; oftentimes maintaining existing machines and systems took up more resources than making new ones. Horses were more important in the two Wo ...more
Jan 03, 2013 rated it liked it
"The First World War was a chemists' war because of the innovation of gas warfare; the Second World War a physicists' war because of radar and atomic weapons. Now we are living through a revolution in military affairs linked to innovations in information processing. Many accounts of the relations of technology and war tell us this simple innovation-based story. But even a cursory look at the military technologies in use will make clear just how misleading a picture that is. Even at the end of th ...more
Leonard Houx
The Shock of the Old has grown in my estimation since I have had time to think it over. I find it especially helpful read against the anti-scientific stances of philosophers like Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightment or Heidegger's in his claim that technologised agriculture is "the same as the manufacturing of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same as the blockade and starvation of the countryside, the same as the production of the hydrogen bombs".

May 04, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2011
There's nothing hugely objectionable in this sweeping history, but not much to recommend it either. For someone who knows nothing about the basic premises of technological determinism or the great man theory (i.e., that both are wrong), this book might offer a helpful and legible corrective. However, if Edgerton's argument is that the practices of technological use must be studied in order to fully illuminate their history (and this is the argument he sets forth in his introduction), what follow ...more
Paul W
Jan 17, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: business
Edgerton reframes the discussion on technology by focusing on a €"use-centred history of technology"€™ as distinct from an innovation-centric focus.
He argues that a pitfall of an innovation-centric focus is that we underestimate the past, overestimate the power of the present, and risk falling into the trap of believing that future technology will solve the problems of the present (as some politicians now argue in relation to global warming).
Another counterfactual point arising from
Aug 24, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: social
A series of anecdotal essays with lots of interesting facts, intended to serve as a corrective to the common view of technological progress as being driven by invention and innovation. Instead, Edgerton identifies eight characteristics that interact (differently in different nations) to speed or slow adoption of new things.
1) Significance, which gives an overview of the varying values different societies give to the 'new'; Time discusses varying periods of adoption and use; 3) Production
Dec 02, 2012 rated it really liked it
Did you know that in the beginning of the 19th century most American farm households owned a car but not a tractor – and that it was the opposite in Russia? And that WW I killed more horses than any other war before? This book deals with the simultaneous existence of old and new technologies. New technologies do not necessarily replace old ones but expand the field of opportunities for customers. E-books do not replace books but add to the range of media available for literature lovers; e-bikes ...more
Oct 08, 2007 rated it liked it
Shelves: sci-tech
This is, in my mind, a good book that could have been great. It does a nice job of philosophically separating innovation from invention, and providing demonstration of the difference in studying the history of technology from the perspective of actual usage rather than as a timeline of spectacular innovations. However, the author (David Edgerton) does not eloquently draw the data back to his thesis through restatement, and the examples (being interesting in themselves) lead this reader to forget ...more
J. Dunn
Jun 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
A provocative re-assessment of the history of technology since 1900, which eschews great-man and great-innovation history, and looks especially at unsung and un-glamorous technologies and innovations. It also dovetails well with a User Experience approach to technology, as his primary take on technology focuses on use, adaptation, and appropriation. Another highlight is an entire chapter on the technology of killing (pesticides, antibiotics, slaughterhouses, weapons, etc.) which is a very clear- ...more
Aug 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
What is old is new. In Edgerton's telling, the history of technology is about the persistence of older technologies rather than the long parade of the latest and greatest that we have been used to hearing for more than a century. It makes for thought-provoking reading; I could see this as a great catalyst for discussion in a graduate seminar. How to get this kind of thinking outside of the graduate seminar, now there's the rub. Technology discussions that begin with "hey, the mainframe's still a ...more
Nov 22, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: technology
Brilliant, provocative book about the history of technology, with many surprising insights. The central these is: in historiography, we focus too much on discoveries, new technology and innovation. In fact, old technologies in particular always were decisive, in wars and in everyday situations. This is an "eye-opener", certainly, but also with the classical one-sidedness associated with this genre; Edgerton also exaggerates in the other direction, because every old technology must have been inve ...more
Sep 28, 2008 rated it it was ok
Initially, I was very excited to read Edgerton's book. After drudging through some chapters, I decided that his writing was unbearable. He has an interesting thesis, and, I suppose, interesting facts to dispense. That's just it, though. I wish Edgerton had created a multi-media powerpoint presentation or website to disseminate the info in the book. There is some interesting imagery in there that he just doesn't convey successfully with language. He tends to leave sentences dangling, all full of ...more
Mark Lisac
Apr 18, 2014 rated it really liked it
The goal was to get people to rethink their ideas about the history of technology, with the emphasis on history as the context. It succeeds. A primary tool is to look at which technologies have actually been used, and how and where they have been used, rather than merely looking at the list of 20th century innovations. Full of novel perspectives and provoking facts. The writing is admirable for its clarity, modesty and assured air of confidence that never strays into arrogance.
Margaret Sankey
Jul 23, 2011 rated it liked it
Provocative, but in some ways totally obvious corrective of the "technology is a Whiggish, upward trajectory" history, given that centuries-honed old stuff often works better in areas with limited infrastructure for use and repair--witness treadle sewing machines alongside cell phone banking, Cuban car repair, mosquito nets vs. anti-malarial drugs that turn people yellow, bicycles and the stunning effectiveness of machetes as weapons.
Elizabeth Newell
Oct 22, 2009 rated it did not like it
I kept thinking this book was going to make some very interesting points about how humble, relatively old things like bicycles and trains have a bigger impact than new, flasy gadgets like MP3 players or even the Internet, but it never seemed to get there. The author kept just kinda putting forth a view, and you would think that was where he was going...and then he'd sneer at the view. After a chapter or so of this rambling, I lost interest.
Mike H.
Jun 26, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Interesting book on the way technology and history are intertwined, and how most history books see history as deterministic. The author argues that technological use and to innovation/invention is the most important thing when trying to determine how technology effected history and vis-versa. There are a lot of interesting examples in the book.

The writing style is very British, which I like but you may not. It's pretty short and easy to read and digest.
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