Histories of technological innovation: a reading list

What’s a fine book on a technological innovation from history?

I asked this question because I’m preparing to teach a couple of classes this fall.  One’s a seminar on innovation and technology.  The focus will be on the digital world, so our readings (and other media) will address that, and I’ll share the syllabus for those interested next month.  But I’d also like to add some predigital, historical examples of invention for perspective, as well as to test out students’ thinking and theory.  I have in mind stories of technological innovations from their inception, development, usage, and unto naturalization or decline.

To start the selection process I began assembling some books on railroads, the car, and radio, and asked some historians for their suggestions.  Then I asked friends on Facebook for their recommendations.  Over several days they offered such a fine list I wanted to share it here.

The titles don’t have a uniform approach.

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  Some are business histories, while others are biographies or cultural studies.  Some focus on a short period of time, while others stretch out over generations or even centuries.  A couple have media connections (ahem).

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Most of the books are stories of specific inventions, from the telephone to the birth control pill to a glass-making technique.  I admitted some exceptions to that principle.  For example, one history of the early internet, another on the PC, and one on AI.  Several are a bit broader, incorporating several innovations together.

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  A few are more general still, but the spirit of the list is dedicated to specific creations.

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Amir Alexander, Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World (2014).

W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves (2009).

Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web Paperback (2000).

David Bricknell, Float: Pilkington’s Glass Revolution (2010).

Fred Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month (1975).

James Burke, Connections (1995).

Gene Carter, Wow! What a Ride!: A quick trip through early semiconductor and personal computer development (2012).

Arthur C. Clarke, How the World Was One (1992).

Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of. Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (1983).

Carl Djerassi, The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, And Degas’ Horse: The Remarkable Autobiography Of The Award-winning Scientist Who Synthesized The Birth-control Pill (1992). 

Susan J. Douglas, Listening In: Radio And The American Imagination Paperback (2004).

Paul du Gay et al, Doing Cultural Studies The Story of the Sony Walkman (2013).

George Dyson, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (2012).

David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old (2007).

Claude S. Fischer, America Calling A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 (1994).

Charles Fishman, One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon (2019).

James Gleick, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (2012).

John Steele Gordon, Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable by  (2016).

Katie Hafner, Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet (1996).

Steven Johnson, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World (2014).

____, Wonderland : How Play Made the Modern World (2016).

Sam Kean, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of The Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery (2014).

Elmer Keith, Six Guns (1961).

Julia Keller, Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It (2008).

Tracy Kidder, The Soul of a New Machine (1981).

Ross King, Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture (2013).

Mark Kurlansky, Paper: Paging Through History (2016).

David S. Landes, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (2000).

Jill Lepore, What the Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong (2014).

Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (2008).

Steven Levy, The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness (2007).

Wendy Moore, The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery (2005).

Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (1988).

Robert O’Connell, Of Arms and Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression (1989).

Henry Petroski, The Pencil, A History of Design and Circumstance (1992).

Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1997).

William Rosen, The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention (2012).

Witold Rybczynski, One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw (2001).

Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (1995).

Cliff Stoll, The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage (2005).

Max Tegmark, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (2017).

Cecelia Tichi, Electronic Hearth: Creating an American Television Culture (1992).

Simon Winchester, The Map That Changed the World (2001).

_____, The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World (2018).

Stephen Witt, How Music Got Free: A Story of Obsession and Invention (2016).

Tim Wu, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (2011).

Tom Zoellner, Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World Kindle Edition (2009).

What other titles would you suggest?

If people find this list useful, I’ll gladly maintain it.  I can also add Amazon links.

(light bulb photo by Tiago Daniel)

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16 Responses to Histories of technological innovation: a reading list

  1. John Cirigliano says:

    “Wow. What a Ride” by Gene Carter.

  2. Roxann says:

    Maybe this book –

    Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web Paperback – November 7, 2000
    by Tim Berners-Lee (Author)

  3. Hello Bryan and all.
    Thanks so much for sharing the list… I’ve now got my reading in place through the fall – for myself and my students!
    I suggest adding, “How the World was One” by Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke’s study and work in technology and innovation was the basis on which he built his science-fiction writing career. During WWII, he served as a radar specialist in the Royal Air Force on the team that created early warning and Ground Approach radar systems. His work on the concept of Geostationary Satellites for communications earned him the honor of having the “Clarke Belt” of geostationary satellites named for him. In the book, along with the above, he provides a history of undersea cabling, through which (as I’ve recently read) much of the Internet traffic of today passes. Clarke takes a look at the future of various technologies as well. A thoroughly enjoyable book for both the techie and non-techie reader.

    How the World Was One
    By Arthur C. Clarke
    Hardcover: 296 pages
    Publisher: Bantam (June 1, 1992)
    ISBN-10: 0553074407
    ISBN-13: 978-0553074406

    Thanks again for sharing your list!

    Michael Nieckoski
    CTL & Distance Education Training Specialist
    Center for Teaching and Learning
    Rowan College South Jersey, USA

  4. Phillip Long says:

    Probably should address the revolution instigated by Napster and its impact on the music business. One option: How Music Got Free: A Story of Obsession and Invention Paperback – June 14, 2016, Stephen Witt


    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That’s a great topic. Solid book?

      • sibyledu says:

        I’ll vouch for the quality of that book. It discusses how recording engineers thought that customers would always prefer high quality regardless of cost, and how record companies thought that they were in the business of selling physical objects (CDs) whereas many customers just want(ed) access to recorded music. The challenge might be in getting undergraduates to imagine a time when the only way to have access to recorded music was to purchase a physical object.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Now that’s interesting, sibyledu, since my students will be all ages. Grad program.

          And thanks. This sounds very good.

  5. Linda says:

    The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage Paperback – September 13, 2005
    by Cliff Stoll (Author).
    Clifford Stoll, an astronomer by training, managed computers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in California. One day in 1986 his supervisor, Dave Cleveland, asked him to resolve a US$0.75 accounting error in the computer usage accounts. Stoll traced the error to an unauthorized user who had apparently used 9 seconds of computer time and not paid for it. Stoll eventually realized that the unauthorized user was a hacker who had acquired superuser access to the LBNL system by exploiting a vulnerability in the movemail function of the original GNU Emacs.

  6. Andreas Broscheid says:

    Ruth Cowan, More Work for Mother

  7. Alan Levine says:

    You have one by Simon Winchester but I would add “The Map That Changed the World”

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