Friday, November 2, 2007

Unsung Technology: The Plow

Yes, I'm stealing this idea from James Burke.

A lot of influential technology isn't properly appreciated. Computers, light bulbs, steam engines, printing presses, all get lots of attention. Everyone knows about them and everyone knows why they're so great and influential. But what about less known technologies? What about the plow?

Without the plow, I daresay, none of those things would ever have the chance to exist. For significant technological advancement, a civilization needs specialists. People who don't have to spend all their time growing, gathering or hunting food, so they can spend time making things. To support specialists, you need large scale agriculture, which can provide a consistent crop yield from year to year. A plow isn't necessary for that if you happen to live on a flood plain where the flooding river will replenish nutrients in the soil. But anywhere else, and you'll run into problems. The nutrients at the surface will quickly get used up.

The solution is to dig up the nutrients. Get them on top, and bury the used up soil under it. And this is what the plow allows. Without the plow, civilization could not have spread outside of flood plains, nor could it support a society large enough for industrialization, preventing the more visible technologies from every being created in the first place.

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