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  • Leonardo to the Internet: Technology & Culture from the Renaissance to the Present
  • Pamela O. Long
Leonardo to the Internet: Technology & Culture from the Renaissance to the Present. By Thomas J. Misa (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) 324 pp. $56.95 cloth $19.95 paper

Misa argues that there are distinct eras in the history of technology, emphasizing that technologies come from within particular societies rather than impacting them from the outside. He proceeds chronologically from an era of the courts (1450 to 1600) to one of commerce (1588 to 1740), and then to periods characterized by industry (1740 to 1851), empire (1840 to 1914), science and systems (1870 to 1930), modernism (1900 to 1950), military culture (1936 to 1990), and finally, global culture (1970 to 2001). These eras grow shorter and begin to overlap as the account moves into the twentieth century. The overlaps tend to undermine the general thesis of technological eras, but they bracket increasingly complex and satisfying accounts of the role of technology in society. Especially illuminating is Misa's view of particular episodes, such as the creation of aniline dyes in the late nineteenth century or the development of nuclear power in the twentieth.

The earlier chapters of the book are weakest precisely because Misa attempts to apply his formula of technological eras too rigorously on the basis of too few sources, ignoring counterexamples and complicating factors. The so-called era of the court could just as well be called the era of the growth of commercial capitalism, and the subsequent era of commerce was profoundly influenced by courtly culture. Indeed, it is the complicated mix of commercial and courtly interests that contributes to the fascinating complexity of these earlier centuries.

As he moves closer to his own areas of expertise, Misa embraces a more varied group of primary and secondary sources, and the cultural complexity and nonlinearity of technological change come to the fore. For example, "Geographies of Industry" provides a masterful account of the different ways that industrialization developed in three English locations—London, Mansfield, and Sheffield. Misa characterizes London as a multidimensional urban network of numerous trades and industries, detailing in particular the production of beer. In contrast to London, Mansfield became the center of a single industry, cotton textile manufacture, featuring large factories. Sheffield, with its own organizational structures, produced high-quality steel products in an industry that was divided into numerous small-scale operations without factories. Misa's comparative approach to industrialization demonstrates his thesis of the embeddedness of technological choices and developments within specific social and cultural matrices.

In the following chapter, Misa explores the ways in which technologies and imperialism reinforced and influenced each other. His recounting of how the telegraph and railroad contributed to the British domination of India is particularly compelling, showing his broad thesis to its best advantage. He suggests that imperialism did not simply continue the eras of commerce and industry but, to some extent, displaced industry by creating a captive overseas market. [End Page 90]

Misa develops his points by choosing particular, usually already well-studied, episodes and creating absorbing accounts complicated by contextual analysis. He shows, for example, that technologies in the era of "science and systems" focused on incremental improvements and stabilization rather than on new inventions, even the electrical technologies that Thomas Edison furthered. To Misa, marketing, financing, and consumption had as much to do with the development of electric technologies as did particular inventions. His case studies, such as that of Italian futurism or the localizations of the global McDonalds, provide good starting points for thought and discussion.

Pamela O. Long
Washington, D.C.


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pp. 90-91
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