Hughes “Forward” by R. Hirsh

Summary of Hughes “Forward”

This brief (one-page) introduction to Technology in World History cautions readers not to equate technology with “progress.”  Progress is a value-laden term, and its meaning differs in various social and temporal contexts.  As important, the author (Thomas P. Hughes, one of the founders of the

discipline of the history of technology, pictured) observes that the development of technologies goes beyond the simple need for devices.  People invented new machines and artifacts for reasons that have little to do with economics or necessity; they come about due to people’s “social and spiritual aspirations,” among other things.  Europeans, Hughes points out, developed an advanced building technology not for practical means, but as ways to express their religious faiths.

The social nature of technology can be evidenced by looking at the way people have developed machines and devices in different cultures.  Often, people create similar technologies in different parts of the world.  But because of social circumstances within various cultures, they often use them in divergent ways.  Alternatively, some people have invented a technology that diffuses to other cultures, which then use them in ways that the originators did not imagine.  (Gunpowder, though invented and developed in China, did not get used for as many military purposes as Europeans adopted it several centuries later, for example.)

Overall, Hughes argues that one can learn much about the social nature of technology by looking at its history.  The history of technology is not simply an account of the development of one technology after the other; rather, it consists of a study of the circumstances in which people devised and used tools within various social settings.

Written by R. Hirsh. Word count:  270 (without header or text below)

For a remembrance of Thomas Hughes, see “Remembering Thomas P. Hughes” at

Hughes wrote an easily accessible book, Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture.  Information about it (and a summary of it) can be found at

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