We invite you to discover how science and technology have completely shaped and changed the course of human history, from the wheel to the combustion engine to medicine to the internet, in this lesson.
The Human Journey
For thousands of years, humans have taken the natural world and bent it to their will. Using our knowledge of the world, we've changed it in ways that have benefited us. Science is the systematic study of the natural world, and it's a process that's expanded our knowledge dramatically over the last 400 years. With that knowledge comes capability. Technology is where we apply our scientific knowledge to achieve a particular goal. Technology can be super simple: one of the earliest and greatest technological achievements was the wheel. Nails, hammers, ropes, watering cans; anything that is created by us to take advantage of the world that we live in is technology.
It's not hard to see how technology has completely changed the world we live in, and therefore changed history. These effects can be great or terrible. In this lesson we're going to go through a few of the most significant technological innovations humans have made and how they have shaped history.
Basic & Farming Technology
Some of the most basic kinds of technology have had the biggest impact. The wheel allowed us to transport people and goods across long distances, while nails and building materials allowed us to create better shelters to protect ourselves from the elements.
Few events in human history have changed our lives more than the agricultural revolution. As groups of humans started to settle in one place and grow food from the land, populations increased and we spread out across the world. As farming technology improved, we could produce more food with less effort. People began to specialize, selling food to others and allowing people to do things other than farming. Every career that doesn't involve farming has technology to thank for its existence.
A piece of farming machinery
The Internal Combustion Engine
The internal combustion engine burns fuel in the presence of oxygen, producing heat, which is used to run the engine. The first commercially successful example was built in 1859. You can find internal combustion in cars, which burn petroleum fuel to produce forward motion. Depending on your perspective, this piece of technology has completely changed the lives of humans for both good and ill.
The internal combustion engine allows us to produce goods in places far away from the people who will use them and transport them to other locations for sale or use. It allows humans to specialize and benefit from economies of scale, which means that businesses save money by producing a lot of stuff in the same place. They can buy large amounts of the materials and parts they need at cheaper prices and have a single location produce huge quantities of items.
The internal combustion engine has also changed the world in negative ways. J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, described the engine as one of the most evil devices inflicted upon mankind. He saw the device being used to destroy the natural world that he loved. He saw cities expanding surrounded by dark smoke, as more and more trees were cut down. This continues today, as the rainforests are being lost at a staggering rate. It's hard to imagine that this would be happening on anywhere near the same scale without the engine.
But the engine also made the world seem smaller, exposing people to more cultures, and to the suffering of others around the world. So while it has caused some damage, it also gives the potential to make the world a better place.
So many medical technologies have saved thousands or millions of lives, but one of the most beneficial was the first antibiotic: penicillin. Before penicillin was discovered in 1928, we had no way to reliably treat infections and kill bacteria inside the body.
Pills and other medicines
Thanks to penicillin and the other antibiotics that followed, life expectancy around the world has skyrocketed. For example, before penicillin was discovered, Americans could expect to live to about 57; in 2012, the life expectancy had risen to 79 years. In some poorer countries, the trend has been even more dramatic.
X-ray machines, MRI scanners, ultrasound, and other technologies have allowed us to see the inside of the body to diagnose diseases. Ventilators can breathe for people, and ECMO machines can add oxygen to their blood. Vaccinations have also made a huge difference, lowering the risk of child mortality.
Telephones & the Internet
Advances in communication technology such as the telephone have completely reshaped human history. Today we can communicate quickly and easily across the entire planet. International diplomacy is easier, and people know almost immediately when conflict arises.
More recently, the Internet has paved the way for truly international businesses, instantaneous commerce, and social movements that have even overthrown governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya.
Open communication and information allows people to understand the world better. The Internet can allow people to gain knowledge and skills, and even potentially break through the media blackouts of repressive regimes. It has already shaped history, and will likely do so more with every year.
Science is the systematic study of the natural world, and technology is the application of science for practical purposes. Everything from wheels, to penicillin, to the Internet counts as technology. Technology has completely changed the way humans live, and therefore has shaped human history.
Telephones, the Internet, and engines allow people and goods to move from place to place much quicker, and we can communicate around the world instantly. Drugs like penicillin, vaccinations, and medical devices, like x-rays, have collectively increased human life expectancy on a scale never before seen. While not all the effects are good - after all, technology has also caused destructive wars and rapid deforestation - technology gives humans the potential to do some amazing things.