STS.007 | Fall 2010 | Undergraduate

Technology in History


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


In this class we ask two big questions. First, what is “technology”? Second, how has the set of activities to which we commonly give this label shaped human relations among ourselves and with the rest of the natural world?

We focus on four fundamental transformations in these relations: the emergence of humankind as a history-making species; of agriculture-based civilizations; of productive systems based on fossil fuels; and of “human empire” dominated by human presence and power.

In each unit we will study, among other things, technologies as media of expression and communication; connections among technological, political, and military power; the concept of “technological revolutions”; and the role of imagination, beliefs, and values both in inspiring and in being shaped by technological creativity.

Because MIT is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2011, we will focus on connections between MIT as an institution and technology in the history of the last 150 years.

Requirements and Grading

Check-off writing assignments (one-page, not graded) 15%
Oral presentations and discussions 15%
Quizzes 20%
4 papers (one paper must be revised, others may be; 4-5 pp. each, to total 20 pages including a longer revised paper) 40%
Revised paper 10%

This course is a Communications Intensive HASS (CI-H) subject. Students are required to have two meetings with the class Writing Advisor.

Required Books

Christian, David. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. University of California Press, 2004. ISBN: 9780520244764. [Preview with Google Books]

Hersey, John. Hiroshima. Vintage, 1989 [originally published in The New Yorker, 1946]. ISBN: 9780679721031.

Additional readings will be assigned from other sources.


Unit 1: Humankind as a History-making Species
1 Introduction to class and key concepts In class exercise: Maps of time
2 What is technology? What is history (and prehistory)? (Visitor: Prof. Leo Marx) Writing (check-off): Question for Professor Marx
3 Technology in prehistory: cave art Discuss paper 1 assignment
4 Technology in “prehistory”

Writing (check-off): Where is “technology” in The Clan of the Cave Bear?

Group discussions and presentations on reading

5 Historical Analogies Paper 1 due
Unit 2: Civilizations Based on Agriculture
6 The Neolithic Revolution  
7 Introduction to MIT’s 150th anniversary: class visit to MIT archives Writing (check-off): Questions for Archivists
8 Discuss visit to Archives First mandatory meeting with writing advisor by this date
9 Civilizations and Empires (part two) Discuss paper 2 assignment
10 Technohistorical Revolutions (part one)  
11 Technohistorical Revolutions (part two) Paper 2 due
12 Agrarian Civilizations (part one): megalithic agrarian civilizations Quiz on reading and lectures/discussions to date
13 Agrarian Civilizations (part two): the Roman Empire as an agrarian civilization  
Unit 3: Civilizations Based on Fossil Fuels
14 The Industrial Revolution  
15 Visit to MIT Museum Writing (check-off): Questions about your MIT topic for museum hosts
16 The Second Industrial Revolution (part one)

Paper 3 due

Oral reports on paper 3 topics

17 The Second Industrial Revolution (part two) Oral report on paper 3 topics (continued)
Unit 4: Human Empire
18 The Second Industrial Revolution (part three) Discuss Marx-Engels & Schivelbusch reading
19 The Second Industrial Revolution (part four) Group discussions and presentations: Comments on Marx-Engels & Schivelbusch reading

From Industry to Battlefield

Chemical Engineering at MIT

Finish group and individual oral reports
21 Ground Zero (part one)

Discussion of Hersey, Hiroshima, and “Ground Zero” from Visualizing Cultures

Second mandatory meeting with writing advisor by this date

22 Ground Zero (part two)

Fourth paper due: comments on Hersey, Hiroshima (default mode); other topics acceptable with permission

Review for quiz

23 Looking Back and Beyond: General review of MIT 150 Quiz
24 Looking Back and Beyond: Presentations and discussion on “what is the role of technology in history?”  
25 Looking Back and Beyond: Presentations and discussion on “what is the role of technology in history?” Revised paper due: Student choice as to which one

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2010
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments