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.
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?
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.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 3.11: Fencing in the American West
Before barbed wire
You might be saying to yourself, "Didn't people have cattle before barbed wire was invented? What was the big problem?" Man, you guys are sharp. You're totally right.
Ranchers all over the world, and in the American West, raised loads of cattle without barbed wire. Most of the time, they didn't use any fencing at all. That seems crazy to us, but imagine the West with fewer people, no roads, and only a few major railroads. It was basically a giant pasture.
Most ranchers hired people (cowboys) to move their herds around to new grazing lands throughout the year, and didn't mind a few cows wandering off or getting eaten by wolves.
As you know, over the course of the 19th century, more and more cattle appeared, along with more and more people, trains, towns, and roads. The no-fence plan started to get dicey.
Especially after the meat packing industry started taking off, people wanted ways to raise even more cattle. Conflicts arose between ranchers arguing over whose cattle got to eat where, and townspeople didn't love the idea of cows strolling down the street. They needed fencing.
In the eastern U.S., most fences at the time were wooden. Out West, though, there weren't many trees, and wooden fences were too expensive. Stone fences were popular in New England, where farms were small and the land was rocky, but were pretty much impossible for the hundreds of acres owned by Western ranchers.
See how simple things get complicated really fast?
Then there were smooth-wire fences, which worked well until livestock actually wanted to get through them. Cows could just lean on them until the wire snapped. (Fatties.)
Others tried earthen fences (large piles of dirt) or hedges of thorny bushes. Surprisingly, those plans didn't work that well either.
The West needed a hero. No, not this guy. More of a "fencing" kind of hero.
Glidden and his invention
The actual invention of barbed wire seems like it would be a simple story. Make some wire, sell it to farmers, and bam. But it's not. The story contains few lawsuits, some competing designs, and some crazy stunts to sell the stuff to farmers.
Follow this link to a long essay about the invention of barbed wire. Don't panic! You only need to scroll down and read two sections of it, titled "Necessity Breeds Invention: De Kalb, Illinois, 1873" and "The Next Step: Promoting Barbed Wire." Forget about the rest.
The reason barbed wire was a big deal
Now you know the whos and whats of barbed wire, but let's make sure we get the all-important whys. Like, why was it so crazy popular in the West?
Well duh, it solved a lot of their fencing problems for them. It also was cheap compared to wood, and easy to run over long stretches of fencing. It didn't need much maintenance, unlike earthen fences and hedges. And, most importantly, there was about a 0% chance of the cattle getting out of the fence. (Hey, you try leaning into some barbed wire...)
Barbed wire was the right technology at the right time. Here's what it meant for the Wild West:
- Land became divided. With barbed wire, ranchers started closing off their own properties. If you were a big-shot rancher with lots of land, that was awesome. If you were a small rancher who depended on lots of free open range…that was less awesome.
- More cattle. Fencing in their property meant that ranchers were raising more cattle on smaller areas of land, which helped the whole meat industry take off.
- More grain and corn. All those cattle couldn't all survive on the naturally-growing grass. Farmers started supplementing their food with lots of grain and corn, which meant that more corn and grain were grown in the Midwest.
All that sounds fine, right? And mostly it was. But there were a few people in the West who weren't huge fans.
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 3.11a: Barbed Wire Controversy
If you were a rancher, you dancing in the streets about barbed wire. But other people weren't so happy, and soon there were some real controversies over barbed wire and its deployment.
Each of the sections below describes a different side of the barbed wire debate: the fence-cutters, the wire manufacturers, and the Native Americans of the Western U.S.
Consider each of their perspectives and then write a short paragraph in response to the question or prompt.
Sample Lesson - Activity
Quiz 3.11b: Machines on the Farm
- Course Length: 18 weeks
- Grade Levels: 9, 10, 11, 12
- Course Type: Elective
- History and Social Science
- High School
Just what the heck is a Shmoop Online Course?
Common Core Standards
The following Common Core Standards are covered in this course:CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.1