The Evolution of Technology

30.06.2021 |

Episode #5 of the course The evolution of life in the universe by Silvano P. Colombano Ph.D.


We have already used the word “technology” in the context of human evolution, in reference to important developments, like the wheel, material processing (metals), or the printing press. In this chapter, we will be specifically focused on our current extensive ability to control the natural world, based on a deep understanding of the laws of nature, as categorized in Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Mathematics.

We have seen how advances were made in all these areas, which, together, created a “substrate” of knowledge that finally allowed a new leap. This is analogous to the molecular substrate that allowed for the emergence of life, or the cellular substrate that allowed for the emergence of multicellular organisms, species, and so on.


The Birth of Modern Science

The 1500’s and early 1600’s signal a major turning point from humanity’s reliance on traditions, religious faith, and texts for understanding nature, to increasing reliance on accurate observations, theory formulation, and testing.

Examples are Leonardo Da Vinci’s detailed drawings of anatomy, astronomical observations that allowed for the formulation of the theory of Earth’s motion around the sun by Nicolaus Copernicus, invention of the telescope by Hans Lipperhey, followed by the microscope by Galileo Galilei. Humanity’s ability to observe in greater detail both astronomical objects and, in the opposite direction, objects at the cellular level, coupled with a mathematical language capable of formulating quantitative theories and predictions, signaled the birth of modern science.

Galileo was also responsible for experimenting with laws of motion, disproving the Aristotelian idea that objects of greater mass would fall faster than lighter ones. This allowed for the development of the pendulum for precise time-keeping, and laid the groundwork for the more complete theory of motion and gravitation by Isaac Newton. Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz, are also considered responsible for the development of Differential Calculus. Calculus allowed for the rigorous definition of the relationships between distance, velocity, and acceleration. Together, these laws and their mathematical representations are the basis for Classical Physics, still used to this day to send spacecraft to distant planetary objects! We will see later how Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, extended but did not invalidate Classical Physics, which remains a very good approximation of the laws of motion for speeds and objects in the world we normally experience.


The Industrial Revolution

While the 1600’s saw the birth of modern science, the following century produced the inventions that fueled the industrial revolution, starting with the invention of the steam engine (James Watt) and the beginning of understanding of electricity, with the first electrochemical battery (Alessandro Volta). It took a while longer for electricity to find practical uses, but the steam engine quickly revolutionized manufacturing and transportation by providing mechanical power anywhere it was needed. The first public railway for steam locomotives was inaugurated in 1825 in the UK, finally with speeds greater than those achieved with horses!


Electricity, Communications and the Nature of Matter

In 1800’s a firmer theoretical understanding of electricity and its relationship with magnetism was advanced by several researchers and inventors, allowing for the development of generators and electric motors, and culminating in the first examples of communication and entertainment technologies, such as the telephone (Alexander Bell, 1876) and the phonograph by Thomas Edison (1877), who was also responsible for the first practical light bulb (1879).

Other pivotal milestones before the end of that century were the first car with internal combustion engine (Benz, 1886) and the first wireless transmission of morse code via radio waves (Guglielmo Marconi, 1895), which of course resulted later in radio and television broadcasting.

In parallel with a deeper understanding of electricity, science progressed with a general understanding of the nature of matter, starting with the discovery of atoms, defining each chemical element (John Dalton 1808), principles of conservation of energy, and increase of entropy (Clausius and Kelvin, 1850), Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (1859), first vaccine (Pasteur 1881), Xrays, natural radioactivity, and, finally, finally detection of the first elementary, subatomic particle, the electron.


Modern Science and Technology

This brings us close to the world we are familiar with: the 20th century and our present years. Note that, again, the technologies that allowed for new forms of communication and information transfer were responsible for extraordinary acceleration of technological progress: from 100’s of thousands of years to get to language, to thousands of years for written language, to just a few hundreds of years for electronic communication. At this point, all the elements are in place, together with the physics of power sources, for the final thrust towards a species capable of leaving both the physical boundaries of our planet and the boundaries of our own biological limitations. The fundamental milestones are surely more familiar, but worth summarizing.


Recent Technological Milestones

1903: First powered flight of a heavier than air craft (Wright brothers).

1905: Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity (energy-mass equivalence) followed in 1916 by General Relativity (distortion of space-time by gravity).

1919: First commercial radio broadcasts.

1924: Quantum mechanics. Wave and particle nature of light (DeBroglie and Schroedinger). Note that while relativity deals with properties of large masses, quantum mechanics deals with properties of light and subatomic particles. Both theories have been very successful, but their foundations are incompatible with each other, thus motivating continuing research to resolve important discrepancies.

1938: Nuclear fission and chain reactions are achieved, leading, unfortunately, to the development of nuclear weapons, but, ultimately, also to peaceful power use.

1944: Colossus, the first electronic digital programmable computer (Tommy Flowers).

1948: Invention of the transistor (Bell Labs) – This will lead to integrated circuits and computers and electronics of today.

1953: Molecular structure of DNA (Watson and Crick). This revolutionized our understanding of both evolution and biology.

1961: First astronaut in outer space (Yuri Gagarin). It took less than 60 years to go from the first flight to gaining access to space!

We have reached the start of the Space Age! This is one of three major areas of technology that will shape human evolution from this point on. The other two are Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. We will address all three in the next lessons.


Recommended book

An Encyclopedia of the History of Technology by Ian McNeil


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