Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900

Rate this book
From the books of H.G. Wells to the press releases of NASA, we are awash in clichéd claims about high technology's ability to change the course of history. Now, in The Shock of the Old , David Edgerton offers a startling new and fresh way of thinking about the history of technology, radically revising our ideas about the interaction of technology and society in the past and in the present. He challenges us to view the history of technology in terms of what everyday people have actually used-and continue to use-rather than just sophisticated inventions. Indeed, many highly touted technologies, from the V-2 rocket to the Concorde jet, have been costly failures, while many mundane discoveries, like corrugated iron, become hugely important around the world. Edgerton reassesses the significance of such acclaimed inventions as the Pill and information technology, and underscores the continued importance of unheralded technology, debunking many notions about the implications of the
"information age." A provocative history, The Shock of the Old provides an entirely new way of looking historically at the relationship between invention and innovation.

288 pages, Hardcover

First published December 7, 2006

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

David Edgerton

15 books33 followers
David Edgerton FBA was educated at St John's College, Oxford, and Imperial College London. After teaching the economics of science and technology and the history of science and technology at the University of Manchester, he became the founding director of the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at Imperial College, London, and Hans Rausing Professor. He has held a Major Research Fellowship (2006–2009) from the Leverhulme Trust. In 2013, he led the move of the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine to the Department of History of King's College London.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
83 (18%)
4 stars
159 (36%)
3 stars
140 (32%)
2 stars
40 (9%)
1 star
15 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 71 reviews
Profile Image for Marc.
3,109 reviews1,175 followers
April 5, 2022
Brilliant, provocative book about the history of technology, with many surprising views. The central these is: in historiography, we focus too much on discoveries, new technology and innovation. In fact, old technologies in particular always were decisive, in wars and in everyday situations. A classic one is this that the horse made a greater contribution to the nazi conquests than the V2, but there's also the fact that bicycles and motorcycles were more important in the initial growth of East-Asian economies than cars or trucks. The author also debunks a lot of myths, like that teflon was developed by the space industry (it already existed in 1938). And he stresses that maintenance of new technology often comes with a bigger cost than the benefits it offers in the short term. This book is full of eye-openers, certainly, but also with the classical one-sidedness associated with this genre. Edgerton also exaggerates a bit in the other direction, because every old technology must have been invented once, isn't it? Nevertheless, a great read! (Rating 3.5 stars)
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,565 reviews1,890 followers
August 25, 2016
a history of technology in the 20th century, full of gems like the German army having more horses and yet advanced into Russia in 1941 even more slowly than Napoleon in 1812.
the arguement her basically is that ubiquity of use equals importance hence the washing machine is way more important than the moon landings, an opinion I was convinced of through doing handwashing ( powered by a good glas of barleywine sold to me by a sweet middle aged woman in a booth who had the number and placement of teeth you might expected to find in a woman dealing with barleywine drinkers on a regular basis, as a bonus she'd pop her head out of her booth and correct my mispronunciations with a little smile while I was a student in Russia in 1995/6. Eventually I found out that my landlady had a washing machine, she said that she thought I was enjoying washing clothes by hand so much that she felt it churlish to offer me mechanical assistance. I was not amused.
Profile Image for Courtney Stoker.
Author 2 books17 followers
January 6, 2010
The Shock of the Old makes you think. I read it in a history of technology course, and many of my classmates were quick to dismiss it. History majors most of them, they were put off by Edgerton's anti-American politics. I found it a little refreshing to see a history book that not only focused on the everyday, practical use of technologies (as opposed to focusing mainly on European-American military innovations like computers and bombs) and wasn't afraid to get political. All history books have an underlying politics, so it's nice to read a book that isn't shy about admitting that.

Edgerton's premise is interesting, his writing is engaging and witty, and the book is fairly well-argued.
Profile Image for Alex Sarll.
5,942 reviews243 followers
March 13, 2013
"Much of what is written on the history of technology is for boys of all ages. This book is a history for grown-ups of all ages." As that opening sentence indicates, this is a book that wants to show you Everything You Know Is Wrong - and as often as not, it succeeds. The Nazi invasion of Russia used more horses than Napoleon's had. A battleship which predated the Second World War also fought in the First Gulf War - and this for the Americans, too. The humble machete only came into its own as an instrument of mass murder in the 1990s. And so forth. The basic thesis - that old technologies survive longer than we think, that major change often follows improvements and efficiency rather than first innovation, that futurist prophecies tend to look daft in hindsight - is compelling.
However - I'm not sure said thesis is as radical as Edgerton suggests. One of the things I kept thinking as I read this is, anyone writing science fiction needs to read this book. But since at least Star Wars, science fiction has learned many of these lessons - it's rare now to see a gleaming future without grubby survivals of the present. Factual predictions, too, tend to focus on increasing efficiency of eg smartphones, rather than how New Technology X will abolish war, want and work, because we've all seen that grand prophecy given the lie too many times (and we're still waiting on our jetpacks). Undoubtedly there is a lot of good stuff here, I just feel it's cheapened by exaggeration and/or poor phrasing - as when Edgerton apparently suggests by omission that not a single Soviet soldier was killed by an aircraft in the Second World War. And sometimes, as in the suggestion that the Manhattan Project wasn't really that big a deal, you even sense that he's realised himself he's gone too far, as a whole section quickly runs out of steam.
Profile Image for Masatoshi Nishimura.
315 reviews14 followers
September 21, 2020
I like books written by technological determinists in general. This was the most informative one so far on the topic of history of technology. Here and there, he does come off cynical. That is he focuses more on debunking the popular thinking than proposing his grand idea. But after reading it, you will surely gain finer eyes in analyzing how our world operates. I learned bunch of new terminologies from tech-nationalism to innovation-centric view.

He says most engineers are not inventors, most scientists are not researchers, and universities are catching up with technologies instead of creating it. Well, I don't think it's that straightforward as he proposes. For example, deep learning algorithm that enabled AI to have machine translation and read images purely comes from the university effort. I wish he clarified more of his definition of the creation.

He also says an interesting point on ideologies (written below). He says technological determinism in the west died in 1960s. His analysis resonates with that of Paypal founder Peter Thiel (so it's not only this cynical professor who is blind from the real technology is saying this). I only wish he elaborated his point more as I'm not sure he was planning on delivering his conclusion in just this one single paragraph.

"The socialist and communist movements had been deeply committed to some kind of economic or technological determinism - this was a standard official interpretation of Marxism in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. It suggested the military might followed from technological might. Thus, for Stalin, economic and technological development was a matter of military necessity... But in the 1960s, the Western Marxists too turned decisively away from ‘economism’ and indeed technological determinism, to emphasize political action, culture, ideology."
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
Author 3 books24 followers
July 25, 2008
The perspective in this book is novel and convincing. Edgerton argues that the history of technology is the history of what technologies people actually use, and how they use them - not (or not just) the history of whiz-bang inventions.

There is plenty of interesting historical analysis in here, and lots of unusually rendered examples. Sometimes the writing is a little scattered and plodding, which is my only reason for giving the book 4 instead of 5 stars.
Profile Image for Oscar Castanedo.
29 reviews
July 26, 2020
Good explanations on why tech advancement in this age is not particularly faster when compared to other phases of human history. On the negative side, there are parts of the book that overindulge in data regurgitation. Some concepts could have been explained using fewer data points.
Profile Image for Alexander McAuliffe.
158 reviews3 followers
November 18, 2020
"Thinking about the use of things, rather than of technology, connects us directly with the world we know rather than the strange world in which ‘technology’ resides.”

This book asks that we set aside the comfortable story of modern history advancing from one innovation to another, in favor of a more nuanced historicism of the ways that objects of technology are actually used. Edgerton alleges that this sort of “Wright-Brothers-to-Boeing-to-NASA” press-release history writing manages us to mislead us about the past and the present, lending undeserved stature to the tech ‘evangelists’ of our own day. Instead, we ought to focus our attention on the actual *use* of material things. In doing so, we notice that the technologies that actually shape our lives are older and less ‘innovative’ than we’ve been led to think.

Another very interesting part of this book is its demonstration that the actual inventors of world-changing innovations are not corporate R&D departments, or even government agencies, but tinkerers of all sorts using and changing technology. This offers an astute parallel with Taleb’s writing on anti-fragility, and on education/research funding as an ornament of success, rather than its author.

Edgerton makes a lucid plea for a more thoughtful, contextual historicism centered on the use rather than the invention of ‘technologies’. The opportunity this offers to reevaluate the received history of the 20th century, and our understanding of technology in the present day, is compelling.

Recommended by: Adam Tooze and Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Bonus: One ‘shock of the old’ methods that Edgerton mentions are insecticide-treated bed nets, the cheapest and most effective way to prevent malaria. I encourage you to learn about or donate to the quiet, transparent, and effective humanitarian work of the Against Malaria Foundation.

Bonus II: As a reminder to watch out for Survivorship Bias, even in political narratives or historical writing:
"The history of invention and innovation needs to focus on all inventions and innovations at a particular time, independently of their success or failure.”
Profile Image for Pete.
892 reviews55 followers
August 20, 2018
The Shock of the Old : Technology and Global History Since 1900 (2007) by David Edgerton is a fascinating book about how technology is actually used. The book carefully looks at how many technologies, like horses peaked well after their replacements were also in service.

Edgerton is a professor of the History of Science at Imperial College. He knows his subject deeply and brings up many fascinating facts throughout the book and his thesis, that we focus on inventions rather than use to our detriment, is made very well.

The book is full of fascinating facts, such as that horses in war peaked in WWII. Just how long battleships last and that the Manhattan project and the V2 were military failures is fascinating. It's worth noting that Edgerton does make the case that the V2 and nuclear bombs had huge importance after the conflict in which they were invented.

It would be hard to read this book and not find out many new and fascinating books and to not appreciate, if not necessarily agree with the author's premise that older technologies often stay around much longer than we realise and that the flashy new technologies that people are often obsessed with are not always the most important.
Profile Image for Sabo.
2 reviews1 follower
December 28, 2019
I had to read this book for a class in uni.
While reading this book, I always wondered when I could put it back down because it was such a pain to read. Admittedly, the most coherent part of the book is probably the introduction. This is where the author explains his thesis, the reason why he is even writing this book - you‘ll have to read this because otherwise you‘re utterly stuck during the main part of the book. Edgerton‘s ‚Shock of the Old‘ is an amalgamation of random fun facts and examples and little details which dont bring him to any conclusion. Youre left at the dead end point as a reader because where he should have explained WHY hes bringing this or that up now, you‘re left alone without an explanation. I assumed I was simply not reading the book well enough because I genuinely wondered what all the examples are about, but when I came online and saw that others felt the same, I had to share my experience. I am still not aure what his point was other than that the modern world isnt as full of innovations as might seem; that everything is a recycled ‚new‘ but actually old technology or that a lot of old technology is still used around the world. But you dont need to expand this thesis with selectively chosen examples over 200 pages!
Profile Image for Diego.
480 reviews3 followers
April 17, 2014
David Edgerton presenta lo que para el es un paso importante en la historiografía de la tecnología, la tesis central del libro es como tecnologías cotidianas y antiguas siguen presentes en el mundo actual y sirven como cimientos de muchas de las tecnologías que consideramos más innovadoras.

Edgerton pretende mostrar como desde la agricultura, el transporte, la guerra, la política y la economía del siglo XIX y XX ha sido dominada por tecnologías decimonónicas, por la adopción e impulso por parte de gobiernos (tecnonacionalismos) para sus fines políticos, económicos y militares y como en su intersección con las grandes industrias y universidades han producido la tecnología de nuestro tiempo.

Edgerton concluye haciendo un llamado a no confundir invención con innovación y a no subestimar el impacto que las tecnologías del ayer siguen teniendo en en el presente y posiblemente en el futuro.

Un gran libro, vale mucho la pena su lectura.

184 reviews3 followers
January 17, 2019
Written in 2006, this history of technology looks and the subject from the point of view of how how things are used. This is interesting because often inventions take a long time to be adopted - and this can vary based on where the users are. For instance, the usage of horses in industry in Finland peaked in 1950. (It’s a bit like watching QI in that it challenges lots of your assumptions, and in fact you could get a couple of series out of stories in this book, like the impact the sewing machine has made to the world, and the wonderful revelation that there are 3.8m unused fondue sets in the UK). It also introduced me to the concept of ‘Creole Technology’; that is technologies transplanted from their place of origin finding uses on a greater scale elsewhere. It would be interesting to read an update, post iPhone, post ‘software is eating the world’, to see how Edgerton’s views have changed.
Profile Image for Shane.
105 reviews
January 2, 2018
Edgerton provides an excellent thought exercise. Reconsider the way you think about progress, change, technology, and the way that societies evolve. The central thesis seems to be there is a lot of inaccurate or deceptive hype about the way technology is used over time and the way techn does (not) re-shape society. Edgerton contends that old technologies continue to dominate in terms of volume, relevance, and usefulness long after most people (including elites) think they do. Old social power structures are equally resilient and relevant long after many believe that cultural and technological progress has rendered them obsolete. While I don't agree with several of Edgerton's examples and find the section on global research simplistic - the overall argument deserves to be a touchstone for any discussion of technological and societal change.
27 reviews
January 17, 2021
This book is an excellent antidote to the idea that humanity (or, in a more restricted sense, the economy) advances through innovation. While innovation plays a role, much more important is the way it's used, and the contexts in which that happens. David Edgerton demonstrates that with many examples of 20th-century inventions which failed to take hold. He also shows how a lot of new technologies that are touted as innovative are actually based on fairly old stuff. This book won't make you into a Luddite but it might make you skeptical enough of talk of innovation that people will call you one.
36 reviews3 followers
February 1, 2022
The thesis of the book feels a bit weird. The author repeatedly notes how a technology isn’t used most when invented, but decades afterwards. This seems somewhat obvious to me. Furthermore, technology cannot become widespread until after it is invented, so it’s clear that invention matters.

Overal, very interesting narrative alternative to the common story.

Profile Image for Craig.
365 reviews4 followers
January 20, 2014
"...our future-orientated rhetoric has underestimated the past, and overestimated the power of the present." (p206)

This book is full of useful insights like this, but the over ambitious scope leads to a somewhat meandering, occasionally boring, text.
Profile Image for Brian.
160 reviews7 followers
April 16, 2022
Described by the athor as a book on the continuing existence of what we take to be old, this work is a refreshing antidote to the Califonia tech boys who think antyhing more than 5 years old is outdated.

The best sense of the book can be taken from some extracts from the Conclusion:

"our future-oriented rhetorichas underestimated the past, and over-estimated the power of the presenet"

The retrogression in technology in places like Moldova, farming in Cuba and shipbreaking in Thailand

He argues for the importance of the seemingly old and a plea for novel ways of thinking about the present

The power of imitating over innovating, the waste in innovation, the danger in innovation as a way of avoiding necessary change (see cimate change)

skeptical of the hype around invention

Technology has not been a revolutionary force but has been responsibel for keeping things the same as much as changing them

History is changed when we put into it the technology that counts: not only the famous spectacular technologies but the low and ubiquitous ones.
December 28, 2017
This is a very interesting book with technology perspectives not found in other similar books. For example, there is an entire chapter about maintenance, which only gets a brief, if any mention in most books on this topic.
One point that did become clear is the narrow focus of discussion about global trends in the global nature of technology. In which the new and high tech in western countries is the dominant theme. This book would be a good primer for anyone trying to trade in ROW, rest of world.
It does have a exclamation nature in which insights are almost hyped, but there is not enough subsequent discussion about the significance of this insight. As if its mere existence was enough.
This approach did became wearing after a few examples.
Profile Image for Peter.
2,778 reviews499 followers
May 16, 2023
The author states that new history will be written with new technology but regards technology of the past still prevalent. He speaks of refinement and quotes many examples from nations and firms. To be honest I didn't think his kind of argumentation is always fully convincing. Didn't like his conclusions on war, killing, execution and genocide that the most primitive weapons and techniques are the most effective. Few terms were precisely defined here. I agree with the importance of the old as some kind of basic structure but invention will ever increase. Now forms of thinking will arise with digitalization nobody can stop. The digital age is the next step in my opinion. Nevertheless some interesting thoughts in here. Recommended for building up critical thinking!
Profile Image for Popup-ch.
760 reviews15 followers
August 7, 2020
Most histories of technology focus on inventions and first use, but Edgerton shows convincingly that history looks very different if we instead look at peak use. There were more horses involved in WWII than in WWI. (The German march on Moscow had more horses than Napoleon's Grande Armee.) While the (modern) bike was invented in the 19th century, its use is still increasing.

The prose gets a bit dense, and he keeps ramming home the same points over and over.
Profile Image for Max.
3 reviews18 followers
December 30, 2019
This book touches on a lot of interesting topics about new and old technologies. It brings to light many interesting anecdotes about technologies being used in unexpected ways and unexpected places. But overall it does not string together a coherent story and is not clear what the takeaway or general trends are.
Profile Image for Mehmet Kalaycı.
137 reviews
August 20, 2022
Brief description of events, but the problem is that it is only a description. The author provides few arguments. I am disappointed because several people had recommended this book to me and my expectations were high.
103 reviews9 followers
December 17, 2020
The book presents how technology changes and it's adopted. One of the best points of the book is how it shows that old technologies exist for much longer than people think.
3 reviews
May 6, 2022
Good read, particularly for anyone in manufacturing or engineering.
33 reviews1 follower
May 3, 2017
The "killing" chapter is somewhat hard to read -- but it was certainly interesting to read the basic background on how many animals (including humans) can be efficiently killed per unit time.

Overall, re-visiting the significance of "popular" inventions was super-interesting.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 71 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.