The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton

An excellent antidote to the normal narratives of invention and progress.

But Edgerton isn’t a Luddite, or a cynic that doesn’t believe in progress. Instead, he sets out to fill in the stories that normally get glossed over in normal histories: the importance of horsepower to the modern armies of World War II, the communities in West Africa that have grown up specifically to maintain the cars and trucks they inherit from the developed world using local materials, the resurgence in whaling in the 1920s and 1930s driven by demand for whale oil to be used in margarine. It’s fascinating, incredibly readable, and it changed the way I read stories of technical progress and achievement.

Three facts in particular stood out to me:

  • India and Taiwan produce more bicycles each year than the entire world did in 1950.
  • In 2003, the largest R&D spenders weren’t in biotech or the internet; they were car companies: Ford, Daimler Chrysler, Toyota, etc.
  • The rickshaw, which I always assumed was an old tech lingering in the modern world, was in fact only invented in 1870, in Japan.