Information and Material Progress in Seventeenth-Century England
Author: Paul Slack
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Improvement was a new concept in seventeenth-century England; only then did it become usual for people to think that the most effective way to change things for the better was not a revolution or a return to the past, but the persistent application of human ingenuity to the challenge of increasing the country's wealth and general wellbeing. Improvements in agriculture and industry, commerce and social welfare, would bring infinite prosperity and happiness. The word improvement was itself a recent coinage. It was useful as a slogan summarising all these goals, and since it had no equivalent in other languages, it gave the English a distinctive culture of improvement that they took with them to Ireland and Scotland, and to their possessions overseas. It made them different from everyone else. The Invention of Improvement explains how this culture of improvement came about. Paul Slack explores the political and economic circumstances which allowed notions of improvement to take root, and the changes in habits of mind which improvement accelerated. It encouraged innovation, industriousness, and the acquisition of consumer goods which delivered comfort and pleasure. There was a new appreciation of material progress as a process that could be measured, and its impact was publicised by the circulation of information about it. It had made the country richer and many of its citizens more prosperous, if not always happier. Drawing on a rich variety of contemporary literature, The Invention of Improvement situates improvement at the centre of momentous changes in how people thought and behaved, how they conceived of their environment and their collective prospects, and how they cooperated in order to change them.
Finalist, 2008 Henry Paolucci / Walter Bagehot Book Award given by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Why does technology change over time, how does it change, and what difference does it make? In this sweeping, ambitious look at a thousand years of Western experience, Robert Friedel argues that technological change comes largely through the pursuit of improvement—the deep-rooted belief that things could be done in a better way. What Friedel calls the "culture of improvement" is manifested every day in the ways people carry out their tasks in life—from tilling fields and raising children to waging war. Improvements can be ephemeral or lasting, and one person’s improvement may not always be viewed as such by others. Friedel stresses the social processes by which we define what improvements are and decide which improvements will last and which will not. These processes, he emphasizes, have created both winners and losers in history. Friedel presents a series of narratives of Western technology that begin in the eleventh century and stretch into the twenty-first. Familiar figures from the history of invention are joined by others—the Italian preacher who described the first eyeglasses, the dairywomen displaced from their control over cheesemaking, and the little-known engineer who first suggested a grand tower to Gustav Eiffel. Friedel traces technology from the plow and the printing press to the internal combustion engine, the transistor, and the space shuttle. Friedel also reminds us that faith in improvement can sometimes have horrific consequences: improved weaponry makes warfare ever more deadly and the drive for improving human beings can lead to eugenics and even genocide. The most comprehensive attempt to tell the story of Western technology in many years, engagingly written and lavishly illustrated, A Culture of Improvement documents the ways in which the drive for improvement has shaped our modern world.