History 135E
Department of History
University of California, Irvine


I constructed this website to accompany "Spinning the Web of Ingenuity", a course on the History of Technology that I was privileged to teach at UCI until my retirement in 2008.  I developed the website to serve as a reference and resource for my students.  Their insightful comments, questions, and suggestions helped shape its content and structure over the years. 

I hope the information and ideas you find on these pages will both satisfy and further stimulate the curiosity that led you here.

Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker
E-mail:   bjbecker@uci.edu

Chapel Hill, April 2010

Ever since the first things crafted by hand and brain appeared in an ancient toolkit, products and the processes that shaped them have mimicked, improved, abused, and--occasionally--tamed the forces and resources of nature.  Like agile spiders, we walk a self-spun tightwire spanning the natural and the designed worlds.  The tangled web we weave is shrouded in the mists of past and future.  We naively perceive our wire to be a single thread along which to advance or retreat.  At each step we balance precariously between familiarity and novelty, utility and beauty, stability and change, tradition and innovation ... between wisdom and cleverness.  In this course, we will explore a sampling from the historical and contemporary strands that comprise this complex web and sustain its dynamic tension:
  • Who were the earliest technicians?
  • What factors have stimulated and inhibited technological change?
  • How are technological ideas and practices transferred?
  • Can there be society without technology?
pity this busy monster,manunkind,

not.  Progress is a comfortable disease:
your victim(death and life safely beyond)

plays with the bigness of his littleness
--electrons deify one razorblade
into a mountainrange;lenses extend

unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish
returns on its unself.
                               A world of made
is not a world of born--pity poor flesh

and trees,poor stars and stones,but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical

ultraomnipotence.  We doctors know

a hopeless case if--listen:there's a hell
of a good universe next door;let's go

           --e.e. cummings (1944)

Week 1.  Stretching Limits--Taming ...
  1.   ... material elements
  2.   ... human elements
Reading:  Week 1 Readings
Hoban, chs 1-4
Week 2.  Building Sites--Shaping ...
  3.   ... stuff of everyday strife
  4.   ... essence of everyday life
Reading:  Week 2 Readings
Pacey, chs 1 & 2; Hoban, chs 5-8
Week 3.  Structuring Lives--Measuring ...
  5.   ... space
  6.   ... time
Reading:  Week 3 Readings
Pacey, chs 3 & 4; Hoban, chs, 9-11
Week 4.  Mastering Materials--Gathering ...
  7.   ... material resources
  8.   ... human resources
Reading:  Week 4 Readings
Pacey, chs 5 & 6; Hoban, chs 12 & 13
Week 5.  Improving Processes--Wedding ...
  9.   ... science
10.   ... technology
Reading:  Week 5 Readings
Pacey, chs 7 & 8
Week 6.  Imagining Possibilities--Extending ...
11.   ... material capabilities
12.   ... human capabilities
Reading:  Week 6 Readings
Pacey, chs 9 & 10; Hoban, ch 14
Week 7.  Constructing Realities--Shrinking ...
13.   ... time
14.   ... space
Reading:  Week 7 Readings
Hoban, ch 15; Huxley, Author's Forward, chs 1-6
Week 8.  Anticipating Consequences--Constraining ...
15.   ... the natural
16.   ... the artificial
Reading:  Week 8 Readings
Huxley, chs 7-9; Hoban, ch 16
Week 9.  Designing Alternatives--Perfecting ...
17.   ... worlds
18.   ... people
Reading :  Week 9 Readings
Huxley, chs 10-18; Hoban, ch 17
Week 10.  Conceiving Futures--Finding ...
19.   ... the 1 big 1
20.   ... tomorrow
Reading:  Week 10 Readings
Hoban, ch 18
Spinning and Weaving

Technology is about doing.  If you'd like to have an opportunity to produce a useful item from raw materials, try your hand at spinning your own thread out of fiber and then weaving that thread into a piece of cloth on a simple handmade loom.  Experience for yourself the struggle, frustration, satisfaction and pride that comes with mastering an age-old craft; the mental and physical strain of working at tedious, repetitive tasks for hours at a time; and the mixed sense of awe, relief, loss and rage when a machine is invented that can replicate, perhaps even surpass, your production capability.


Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Arnold Pacey, The Maze of Ingenuity

Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back