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History of Technology

Featuring the semiconductor and the moldboard plow

Technology isn't all iPhones, nuclear fission, and the Internet. Technology is everything from the first cave paintings to the zipper, and it has a long, dirty history full of failed inventions, unforeseen consequences, and world-changing ideas.

In our "greatest hits" of technology, we'll learn how the first steam engine was originally a clunky machine to pump water out of mines before it ended up powering the railroad era; how the domestication of cats made the agricultural revolution possible; and how the highway system totally made modern America (and no, there's not actually a Highway to Hell).

Our course is divided into six themes—energy, transportation, agriculture, weapons, health and home, and information—and explores technology from the caveman to the spaceman. Along the way we'll

  • learn the broad chronology of technological development from the Neolithic Age to Neil Armstrong.
  • explore how technology changes how humans interact with the environment.
  • realize the cultural and social aspects of technology.
  • ask whether necessity is in fact the mother of invention.
  • gain some slick new digital skills.
  • learn the tools of the historical trade.

Course Breakdown

Unit 1. Energy

This unit covers all the ways humans have tried to eke energy out of the world, from waterwheels to steam engines to semiconductors.

Unit 2. Transportation

Walking from Point A to B is a drag. In this unit, we'll cover the most important innovations in transportation technology, including planes, trains, and flying machines...and how they've brought us closer together.

Unit 3. Agriculture

In this unit, we'll dip our toes into the wide world of agriculture, covering the many ways in which we've attempted to eat (more), from the birth of agriculture through GMOs.

Unit 4. Weapons and Warfare

From bronze weapons to the atom bomb, this unit dives deep into the history of warfare, focusing on how new technologies shifted the balance of power through history.

Unit 5. Health and Household

This unit is all about the little guys: eyeglasses, vaccines, cotton, and everything else that's changed our daily lives.

Unit 6. Information and Communication

This unit is all about how we became "The Information Age." Starting with cave painting and writing and making a pit stop with the printing press, we'll research communication technologies all the way until the Computer Age.

Sample Lesson - Introduction

Lesson 11: Barbed Wire

We spent the whole last lesson convincing you that the American livestock industry was built on the power of refrigeration. Which it totally was. But there was another technology that mattered too: barbed wire fencing. You know, the stuff that biker wannabes get tattooed around their biceps?

Sorry, bro, but barbed wire was the real cowboy. Nice hat, though.

According to every bad Western movie ever, the West was won by square-jawed men riding horses and shooting Indians. We're sure that indiscriminate slaughter helped, but the real hero of the Western plains was barbed wire fencing.

Without it, the vast herds of cattle couldn't have been managed successfully, the Great Plains couldn't have become a profitable place to live, and the meat industry couldn't have had that huge boom we just talked about.

So brace yourselves for the story of barbed wire. In involves some really bad ideas for fences, more cows than you can shake a stick at, and a clever man named Joseph Glidden. It also involves some unlucky Native Americans—was there another kind of Native American once Europeans got up in their grills?—and a group of people who wore masks and called themselves fence-cutters.

History: you can't make this stuff up.