Short notes on the role of technology in modern history


The progress of research has established the history of science, technology and ecology as viable branches of the discipline of history. This has added new and important dimensions to general history. At the same time, detailed research has demonstrated the close inter­relationship between the histories of science, technology and environment. All this has altered the shape of history.

After Independence studies of technology acquire an analytical historical perspective. A preliminary venture in this direction was a series of lectures by leading scientists and technical educators at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, edited by B.R. Nanda as Science and Technology in India. Here, too, the impact was judged in somewhat uncritically positive terms, with an emphasis on the progressive leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru. Technology was treated in such preliminary works as part of the history of science. It took some time to give more complex and critical attention to technological history on its own.

Many historians in the West continued to emphasize the progress brought about by technology transfer from the West to non- Western societies. Daniel R. Hedrick’s The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850-194U dwelt on the transfer of a range of new technologies, such as railways, botany, urban infrastructures, metallurgy, technical education, etc., with special attention to India.


A more critical assessment for India specifically was made in Roy McLeod and Dipak Kumar Technology and the Raj (New Delhi, 1995). An important article in this collection, ‘The Building of India’s Railways: the- Application of Western Technology in the Colonial Periphery’, by Ian Derbyshire, pointed out that railway development in India, unlike UK, secured few direct, ‘backward linkage’ benefits. Labour market conditions discouraged greater mechanization.

Technical development remained ‘colonial-dependent’. In comparative terms, India lagged behind not only the USA, but also Russia, where innovation in construction, equipment and operational spheres was conspicuously greater. Backward linkage effects relate to the stimulation of activities in the economy that ensure supply to a new line of production.

Forward linkage effects, on the other hand, mean the stimulation of demand for other products resulting from the new product. In and the case of railway construction in India, a forward linkage benefit might have come about with the construction of locomotives.

This hardly happened during the colonial period on an appreciable scale. In a pioneering article entitled ‘Great Britain and the Supply of Railway Locomotives in India: a Case Study of “Economic Imperialism'”, first published in The Indian Economic and Social History Review (October, 1965), F. Lehmann calculated that during the entire period of British rule in India, not more than 700 locomotives were built in the country, despite the vast railway network that existed by 1947. All the other locomotives came from aboard, and, predictably, most were constructed in Great Britain. Had the railway authorities gone in for building locomotives in India on a bigger scale, this might have laid the basis of a heavy engineering industry before Independence.


As it happened, such a development had to await the coming of the Nehru era. One noted author who analyzed the limited economic stimulus resulting from colonial technological innovation was Daniel Thornier. He noted the limited effect of colonial railway and steamship enterprise on India’s capital market.

Investment in Empire: British Railway and Steam Shipping Enterprise in India 1825-1849. In yet another notable contribution entitled ‘The Pattern of Railway Development in India’ first published in Far Eastern Quarterly (1955), he went even further, and noted: ‘India alone of the countries with great railway networks is unindustrialized.’ It may be noted that such critical observations of the historical role of the transfer of science and technology from Britain to India were still formulated in economic rather than environmental terms.

The emergence of environmental history added a new dimension to the existing criticism of the role of technology and science. Both the economic and environmental arguments have been brought together by Ian J. Kerr, the editor of an important anthology of articles on the railroads entitled Railways in Modern India. Kerr has faithfully included the criticisms of the railway network by both the new environmental historians and the more conventional economic historians.

At the same time, he has not forgotten to emphasize the positive benefits of railways in particular and technology in general. One aspect of science and technology is the import of Western medicine in India. Here, too, recent research has highlighted not merely the positive effects, but also some of the negative developments.


Over all, the new research, even when at its most critical has still not dislodged the impression that technology brought important benefits. Without science, technology and modern medicine, India’s vast and growing population would have been more (and not less) vulnerable to famines and epidemics.

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