BSTP: Computing

The digital revolution was carried by the development of transistors. The first triode was created in 1907 (similar to the air plane in 1903). Followed by field-effect transistor (FET) in 1925 and finally followed by today’s standard a silicon transistor in 1954.

Based on transistors a first digital computer (ENIAC) was built in 1947 and required the first compiler in 1949 to operate it efficiently. This enabled the first programming languages COBOL and FORTRAN in 1953-54.

The internet is the rise of networks of computers based on the TCP/IP protocol (1983). Text-based interaction was enabled  by the development of HTML (1990) at CERN.

Moore’s law was a marketing campaign to create parallel industries (software industries). The problem was that software development is slow (up to 3 years) so companies targeting today’s hardware would have a hard time selling. Intel postulated its growth of doubling capacity to allow software developer to develop for the future machines. Moore’s law is a corporate policy that revolutionised the software industry by setting a target.

The computing industries are globally diversified. Simplified speaking semiconductor printers are developed in Europe, semiconductors are printed in Asia and software to use the semiconductors is developed in the US.

The technology behind semiconductor productions has been an evolution with small steps taken every year since the 1950s. Currently there are only 3 companies (Intel, Samsung, TMC) are able to produce semiconductors and in the near future it might drop to 2.



BSTP: Further Industrial Revolution

Technological development occurs in two forms: intensive growth (development of new methods) and extensive growth (improving current methods). At the time (1930) Keynes predicted 15-hour work weeks by 2030, based on the reduced work necessary to reach the same economic productivity. This was based on the intensive growth of the 19th and 20th century.

The Second Industrial Revolution covers roughly from Telephone to Airplane and is mostly driven by the rise of the use of electricity. Culminating in Airplanes.

The scientific and information revolutions moved from the FM Radio to Transistor, the PC, lasers, cell phones and recently the World Wide Web. The combination of mechanical and communication technology led to rapid advancement in “Mobility” which eased the transport for people and goods. Travel by sea, air and land changed rapidly.

The Panama and Suez canals changed the transportation by sea. and reduced average travel times by more than half (e.g. US East to West cost dropped form 21.000km to 8000km). Another factor was ship propulsion in the doldrums. Sail boats would get stranded in those low wind areas. Coal was to heavy to take along, but engines based on liquid fuel could store fuel efficient enough to take it along.

The power to weight ratio in engines doubles every 7 years since the 1950s. It is a similar phenomena as Moore’s law. This underpins the technological drive behind air planes. While the power increased, the noise decreased. However, this is not due to technological interest, but to policy demands of having less noise in cities.

Along with the capability of movement comes the willingness of movement. Human Capital Flight (or “Brain Drain”) is a consequence of the ability to move. The easy access to foreign labour markets drives those movements. It mostly occurs from developing countries to developed countries.

Another consequence is multinational enterprises. There are around 20 companies that are more influential than probably the bottom quarter of countries. Those companies trade among each other independent of nation states in the international vacuum.

BSTP: Of cars

In the context of Geel’s book – specifically cars – we discuss the following questions:

How did niches emerge in the context of existing technology regime?

A horse-based transport moved to electric-based transport in the 19th century, before the internal combustion engine took off. Electric batteries and plugs where not standardised and therefore it was difficult to use electric-based mobile units. Also the low energy density of batteries would require a very dense charging network that was unrealistic at the time. At the same time the bicycle were created and technology (chains, rubber-wheels, gears, etc.) spilled into the development of early cars. Electric trams and bicycles allowed people to get used to faster transportation (which was still a topic of public discussion at the time) and created a desire for mobility. Cars filled also a leisure niche (touring and racing) that allowed combustion engines to overtake electric approaches.

To which ongoing processes at the level of the existing technology regime and the landscape did developments in the niche link up?

On a side note, electric trams could overtake horse-based transport as electric tram produced a day market for electricity (people used it mainly at night) and it lowered the cost of transport (feeding and housing of horses). Suburbanisation drove the development of cars as well as as the density of people was lower in the suburbs that made trams less efficient (in terms of prices).

What role did policy play in affecting the development of technologies?

The subsidies to suburbanisation in US made cars nearly the only option for transport. In conjunction with a nearly 4 times lower density of people than in Europe cars were needed more.


BSTP: Sailships to steamships and Limited Liability.

The move from sail ships to steamships was driven beyond the technological developments by mail delivery (communication) and transportation of people. Sail ships remained a useful resource in heavy cargo with no time limits on delivery and only phased out with increased efficiency of steamships. The opening of global trade looked the world into steamships. The British empire used the technology to dominate global trade and maintain its leading position.

Adam Smith is a good read on the topic and somewhat founded the field of political economy. His main books where fighting protectionist tendencies in the British government.

The arise of new technology usually drives incumbent technologies to improve. Sail ships technology improved vastly and sail ships became very fast. Hybrids where developed to counteract the rise, but eventually steamships took over completely.

Steamships were not driven by military interested, but by commercial (cargo and people) and government interests (mail). Only when steamships were well established a military race ensued between German and British Empire. The commercial competition between those powers culminated in the Blue Riband Competition to have the fastest steamship to the US.

Another important transition was the disengagement between ship ownership and cargo transportation, allowing the creation of line services that operate independent of the cargo. Also, insurance for transport changed a lot in the consequence. Companies had to weigh the risk between sail ships and steamships. New institutions associated with increasing trade were also created.

Limited Liability

The general idea is that a person creating a company does not need to supply the capital to create the company. An external supplier can provide the capital and must take on the liability but only up to the investment. Therefore those companies had limited liability. Before any investor/owner was liable no matter how small his investment and the personal belongings could be taken as collateral. As a consequence risk-taking was encouraged. Limited liability emerged in the US as the US had less capital and needed to encourage capital from Britain to invest in the US.

BSTP: Industrial Revolution

The topic of today is industrial revolution. Summed up in a phrase the transformation from ” muscle to machine”. Any transformation requires work/energy. Before the industrial revolution people relied on biological matter for work. The rate of energy conversion many orders of magnitude lower than in machines. This limitation extended to human growth potential.

Engines increased the conversation rate by 3 orders of magnitude and more or single machines could perform the task of thousands of man. The first such engine was the steam engine. The British inventors of the 18th century converted the simple principle of energy conversion into an engine. Water is pressurized and heated. When the space is increased the steam performs work which can be used. It was mainly used to pump out water out of coal mines. The Newcomen engine (1720) was such an engine that was commercially available. Northern Britain was the “Silicon Valley” of its time. The large coal reserves in conjunction with the expanding British empire produced the political support to gain an technological edge. The Watt engine (1770) was the next generation and it main improvement was to separate the condenser from the steam generation. This increased the consumption by 75% compared to the Newcomen. The other big innovation was that the Watt engine could be operated continuously.

Mass production

The power generated allowed for specialized factory and massive production. However, it came at the cost of large environmental pollution.

Printing, cotton manufacturing, iron manufacturing and chemical industry where the primary users of those mass production facilities.

These development caused multi-national corporations, the concentration of capital, urbanisation and labour specialization. Incidentally, it created the working class and took people from irregular farm work to weekly labour.


Volta invented the first wet-cell battery in 1800 which was used in research and industry until the 1860s. For instance telegraph (Wheatstone & Cooke, 1830) was enabled by this and the Morse code followed in 1837 and the first Transatlantic cable by 1857.

The first light bulb was patented in 1810, Edison did not invent it. However, Edison was the first to make it usable on a large scale. It took Edison nearly half a century to transform the simple toy light bulbs into a system that could be installed in buildings to provide light at night.

In 1867 Siemens invented the dynamo which allowed to generate electrical currents by rotation. Together with the Watt engine we could generate continuously electrical power.

In the 1880 public transport based on electric trams was first created.

In the 1890 electricity transformed the industry yet again. Electrically driven processes like welding and aluminium smelting emerged and allowed lighter machines. Electrically driven motors replaced steam engines in  factories and thereby to create far-away power plants.

Tesla and Westinghouse created an alternating current power system. In constant current switches would be damaged by turning them. This impeded power plants to be far away. Alternating current on the other hand passes through zero voltage and therefore can easily be turned off. It enabled to built power plants even further away.

Long-distance communication got another boost in 1876 with the telephone and the radio in 1899. It only took 9 years from the invention of a dynamo to the phone and only two more decades two wirelessly transmit information via radio. This accelerated distribution of knowledge and fast-forwarded globalisation.

Internal Combustion Engines

So far engines were limited to remain at a location. The first mobile vehicles where battery driven, but they only lasted a few minutes. Then steam-powered cars came along, but they burned coal, which sometimes exploded and they stank. In 1859 Lenoir  produced a gas-driven ICE, but it was not efficient enough.

In 1876 Otto developed the firs four stroke ICE, which in 1886 Benz used to start manufacturing a small batch of “horseless carriages”. In 1892 Diesel develops a self-igniting ICE that allowed for heavy-duty applications.

Those new engines allowed for individual transport of goods and people.

Materials and tool

Steel production is a major driver of industrialisation. It is present everywhere, so any country could create a steel industry. In 1870 there where 500’000 tons of steel use which rose to 60 million tons in 1915.  Steel ships could be built and railroads could be constructed and steel-frame buildings allowed for the first skyscrapers.

Machine tooling was another new field that exponentially increased the use of steel. High-precision production of metal parts mostly for warfare followed.

Industrial Food Production and Processing

The increase in agricultural output followed the use of fertilizer which constitute active management. Canning was development in the early 1800s, Pasteurization in 1864 (killing bacteria) and refrigeration (slowing of bacterial growth) enters households in 1910. The population increased dramatically as a consequence.

Military Technology

Military development was and is at the forefront of technological development. In the 1850 rifles replaced muskets. Aerodynamically shaped bullets and helical grooves in the barrel caused the bullet to spin which increased the precision of a shot. Automatic guns followed in 1870 in the form of the Gatling gun. Innovations from understanding went directly into the military.

In 1867 Nobel invents the dynamite. Explosives before that where very volatile and where of little military use. Dynamite was stable and therefore could be used tactically.

Military readily applies new technologies to overpower enemies. Industrialisation of warfare lead to massive death counts in the two world wars.


Agricultural technologies lead to population growth in the late 1700. Food preservation technologies improve nutrition, further accelerating the population growth. Steam engines enable mass production of goods and machinery.  Mass production and urbanisation give rise to the working class. Development in electricity accelerate long-range communication, enhance industrial productivity and provide people’s standard of living. Internal combustion engines enable individual transportation.

The invention of the engine is a turning point in human history, enabling and accelerating developments in all scientific fields.

Side note:

A healthy human at the prime of his age produces around 60 to 70 Watt (or 0.1 Horse Power). A modern gas engine half the size of a horse produces 20’000 Watt. A modern air plane runs engine in the range of 100’000 Watt.

ETH Zürich was founded in 1855 right at the height of industrialisation around the time when electricity came about.


BSTP – Lecture 1: History of Technology and Society I

Bridging Science, Technology and Policy will today cover the history of technology and society and how they interact. The first part covers the technical innovations up to the industrial revolution.

Science is how the environment around human functions. It is not human-centric. Technology on the other hand is made by humans to improve human live. Policy are human made rules that govern how we interact with one another.

In typical education settings, those topics are separated. Especially in technology – while human-centred – the human are “bracketed” out.

Drivers of Human Need

Technology can improve the management of human needs amongst them:

  • Productivity
  • Security & Comfort
  • Nutrition
  • Communication & Exchange
  • Mobility
  • Materials
  • Greed & Controls

By providing for the human needs survival rates of humankind are improved – on a basic level. Humans are comparatively weak animals and therefore pursued technology to improve their odds.

Human History

  • 2.5m to 10000BCE: Stone Age (Aleppo was settled around 8000 years ago)
  • around 10000BCE: Agrarian Revolution
  • 10000-4000BCE: Neolithic Age
  • 4000-1500BCE: Hydraulic Civilisations & Bronze Age
    • First time we created our own materials and did not only rely on natural occurring materials
  • 1500-500BCE: Iron Age
    • Move from soft material (bronze) to hard material (iron) which allowed for the first large scale warfare to occur
  • 500BCE-1400: Postclassical & Medieval Revolution
    • Global travelling began and colonisation started


Stone tools where created by sharpening stones to a pointy shape around 2.5million years ago. This cutting instrumented allowed improved hunting.

Horses were domesticated to reduce the work on humans. Humans already started genetically modifying animals to their need. Albeit with a crude approach of cross-breading. The plough was possible because horses could pull the weight. In 250BCE in China the horse collar was developed to increase the weight that a horse could move without hurting it.

Pulleys were developed to carry large weight for long distances (e.g. Stonehenge 2800 – 1100BCE). A human could not possible carry such heavy objects over any reasonable distance.

The oldest wheels were developed at least in 5000BCE. In a thought experiment, wheel development can be imagined to be humans cutting trees and realizing that they can roll due to their round trunk. Shorting the length of the trunk would be a first crude wheel.

In China the first hydroelectric dams where moving vertical plane wheels to grind grain. River-locks were developed to decided when boats would go downstream rather than to go with natural flow. Also, textile machinery was development. Chinese development was reduced through the Mongol conquest.

In Europe the Dark Ages reigned from 500 to 1000 which is associated with a loss of civilisation (developed by the Romans), however, decentralised development took off which eventually would help to give rise to Europe.


The earliest technology were sailing ships.

Humankind learned how to make lighter wheels to reduce the tiring of horses which in turn allowed to carry material further.

Civil engineering appeared in the form of roads and bridges.

The Chinese had the first 4-wheel car and the strongest ships until the 15th century. However, a Chinese emperor ordered the destruction of all ships (a policy decisions) which gave space to British and other Europeans to conquer the oceans. Ship trade and military gave then rise to Europe whereas Asia declined at that time.

The control of environment allowed humankind to move North.

Security & Comfort

Fire was a core development for security. With cooking food humankind was able to kill bacteria and have more food security. Also cooking allowed us to extract more calories from possible foods which in turn opened up more food sources.

Fire also allowed clay processing for construction and pottery. It also allowed for the first forms of (clay) art.

The first forms of infrastructure were for protection and agriculture. Bringing in water, removing waste and protecting a location allowed for urbanisation to come into existent.

Energy & Nutrition

Taming water in the form of canals, drainages and use water to do work where key forms of harvesting (water) energy. A water wheel could replace the work of 80 humans in 3000BCE. However, it required a casting technology to create the axle and animal grease to lubricate it. In turn this allowed for a food surplus and trading was possible.

In turn professions were possible due to the fact that not everybody needed to collected food. Starting from here empires could be build and began to emerge historically.

Any innovation up to the 15 century took place in Southern Europe, the Middle East and China.

Communication & Exchange

Language, symbolic communication and paintings arose quite early (first drawings are from 30000BCE). In 3000BCE taxes were first introduced in Egypt which allowed to form the first state. In 8000BCE the first form of cash was created in Mesopotamia in the form of exchangeable clay tokens.

The Roman empire had 75000km of roads which made communication difficult. Paper (first created in 5000BCE) in turn allowed to communicate information easier over longer distance and time. Therefore assets could be assigned to define (cultural) ownership.


Copper smelting was probably developed in 5000BCE in Anatolia. Iron was first smelted in 1500 BCE in China. War, kingdoms and aristocracy arose out of the iron production.

Greed & Control

Weapon development drove defence development which drove siege machinery development. The rise of weaponry allowed wars, empires, bureaucracies and public works to be created.

Chemical knowledge was a game changer. The British developed cannons which allowed England to grow into an Empire. The casting of cannons was a difficult technological achievement. Casts must maintain a very straight barrel to shot straight ahead. Without cannons the British Empire could not have arisen.


In China and Japan a single ruler controlled innovation to subdue rebellion (e.g. destroying their own navy in China and turning inwards). In contrast Europe was completely decentralised after the fall of the Roman empire and a technology race was driven my military needs. Consequently Europe surpassed Asia technologically in the 1400s and the European Colonisation began on a large scale.



Geels’ Technological Transitions and System Innovations

Technological transitions and system innovations: A Co-Evolutionary and Socio-Technical Analysis(Geels, 2004)is a mandatory reading of the core course Bridging Science, Technology and policy. The book analyses how technological changes transform societal functions such as transport, communication, housing and energy supply. According to Geels social and technological aspects are always intertwined and constitute each other. The book claims an interdisciplinary background in its qualitative work where (at least) evolutionary economics, innovation studies(Godin, 2012), sociology of technology, and complex system theory come together.


The focus of the book is to explain transitions from one socio-technological system to another. Specifically, it address the impact of technology beyond its product and process innovations and into the realm of societal functions. Only human agency, social structure and organisations provide technological artefacts with purpose. Artefacts exist within a specific context which needs to be understood to fully understand an artefact.

A technological revolution (e.g. the development of the car) is a major transition in a socio-technological system. The transition often leads into a more complex system and often different technologies co-evolve (roads, fuels, engines, etc.) to produce the technological revolution. It also required new policies (side of driving, driving permits, speed limits, fuel taxes, etc., but also fuel stations, fuel acquisition) which often respond to the technical revolution. The set of policies is increasing in complexity over time as more requirements emerge in response to previous policies. Technological revolution is often socially resisted and changes the social landscape. The car was considered too fast in the beginning and later on became a status symbol.

Fridges and laundry machines emerged only in the mid 20th century. They reduced the work load on women and enabled them to start working as less manual work was needed in house holds. The emancipation of women (a landscape development) was a social driver (of the socio-technical regime) but also beneficiary of the technological development (the technological niche).

The main argument of the book is “that technologies emerge in little bits and pieces and humans start to combine them. Some survive and some disappear. Those who survive drive social change and eventually reshape the society.”


Geels, F. W. (2004). Technological Transitions and System Innovations. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Godin, B. (2012). “Innovation Studies”: The invention of a Specialty. Minerva, 50(4), 397–421.