Techdirt Reading List: A Culture Of Improvement

from the how-innovation-works dept

We’re back again with another in our weekly reading list posts of books we think our community will find interesting and thought provoking. Once again, buying the book via the Amazon links in this story also help support Techdirt.

Last week, we wrote about one of my favorite books as an introduction to economics and economists, The Worldly Philosophers, and this week, I’m suggesting one of my favorite books on innovation and technological progress: Robert Friedel’s astounding A Culture of Improvement: Technology and the Western Millennium. It’s a giant book, clocking in at nearly 600 pages, but it’s a wonderful and highly readable look through the history of technological innovation and why technology changes over time.

Friedel has a history of writing fascinating and entertaining books about specific innovations that you probably take for granted. For example, I first discovered Friedel when I read his amazing book on the history of the zipper, which really is a fascinating story, about something I had no idea about before, but which I use every day. He knows how to write engaging stories on innovation, and A Culture of Improvement takes that skill even further by not just following a single invention, but looking at centuries worth of innovation to see what we can learn from it. Check it out.

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Comments on “Techdirt Reading List: A Culture Of Improvement”

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3 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Just from browsing through it briefly, it looks like an excellent thought-provoking book. Though readers may not necessarily agree with some of his theories (which are very many).

An interesting “theory” from page 151:

“Hops make it much easier to convert more of the malt sugar into alcohol, so that to produce a drink of a given strength, the addition of hops both reduced the amount of malt required (by as much a one-half) and speeded up the fermenting process.”

Perhaps an old “brewers’ tale” – I doubt that has any basis in fact whatsoever. If anything, the opposite is more likely to be true, since hops acts more like a preservative.

A key aspect that seems to be missing from Friedel’s book is the inclusion of economics and profit as a significant driving force (many would argue the overriding driving force) for technological innovation. For instance, in the case of beer, German brewers were experimenting with money-saving shortcuts (and drawing the attention of legal authorities) 500 years ago. Laws were passed in the name of protecting consumers that basically hampered innovation and productivity, a trend that continues up to the present day with issues such as GMO food. But that’s not part of the author’s narrative.

The book covers such a very wide variety of material. Sometimes the author seems to delve more into Hollywood tropes than historically accuracy, as this on page 370:

” In the Napoleonic wars, for example, the procedures for firing a gun were largely those that had been followed for centuries, and these defined the form and pace of battle more than anything else. The typical infantry weapon was a muzzle-loading smooth- bore musket. To fire it, a long sequence of steps was required: the infantryman would take from his pouch a paper packet containing powder and ball. After biting o¤ one end, he would typically put the ball in his mouth, sprinkle a little of the powder into the firing pan of his gun, raise the gun vertically and rest the butt on the ground while he poured the rest of the powder into the barrel. He then spit the ball down after the powder, and followed this with the wadded up paper. …

… It is small wonder, then, that to Napoleon and his rivals the bayonet charge was still thought of as the most effective of all infantry maneuvers.”

It would seem that the presence of those bayonets would make the act of positioning one’s mouth and spitting the bullet down the end of a barrel a rather difficult feat, compared to simply dropping it in by hand. (That’s because the widespread “spitting bullet” myth was apparently based on the incorrect assumption that the muskets/rifles of that era did not use bayonets) But that paradox apparently went unnoticed by the author.

Not to nitpick; writing such a long, wide-ranging, and theory-spewing book is no wasy task, so the author can hardly be expected to be a master on all subjects covered. And these days, even school textbooks get published with a huge number of factual errors.

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