Iron Pillar in Delhi

The iron pillar in Delhi is an amazing object. At over 7 meters in length and weighing over three tonnes, it was made about 16 centuries ago from forge-welded wrought iron pieces. It is so corrosion resistant that it has survived the ravages of nature, and is strong enough that it even withstood destruction by cannon fire by Nadir Shah’s army about three centuries ago.

The people who cast that pillar had the technology to make that pillar. Which means that they knew how to make an iron pillar which resists corrosion for over a millennium and a half. The operative phrase in the previous sentence is “knew how to” — which is the definition of technology that we focus on.

Technology is Knowledge

The simplest and the broadest definition of technology is that “technology is knowledge of how to do” something. We generally associate technology with high technology — the innumerable electronic gadgets and gizmos that we use all the time, and the cars, trains, planes, nuclear reactors, and so on. But those are just objects that have technology embedded and embodied in them, not technology themselves.

Since technology is knowledge of how to do something, and since knowledge can be lost, technology can be lost. Thus it appears that Indians later lost the technology that they had had centuries ago when they forged the iron pillar of Delhi.

Technology is Ancient

We think that technology is some new-fangled feature of the modern world. Actually technology, accurately and broadly understood as knowledge of processes that achieve some chosen end, is as ancient as humanity itself.

Technology predates two fields related to it, namely, science and engineering. It is helpful to distinguish between those three concepts.

Science and Engineering

Science investigates the nature of the world in all its varied aspects. It attempts to answer the question, “what is the world made of and how does nature work?” The operative phrase is “what is” when it comes to science. The operative phrase is “how to” when it comes to technology. 

What’s engineering then and how is it distinguished from science and technology? Engineering is the actual making of a thing. If you know how to make a bridge, you have the technology for bridges. Science informs your choice of how much steel and concrete you need for your bridge. Through the science of materials (the physics of how materials behave under stress), our calculations tell us — most of the time but not always — what are feasible combinations of various materials for constructing a bridge. When you actually construct the bridge, you are doing engineering using your previously acquired knowledge of science and technology.[1]

Science or Technology: which came first

It’s interesting to ask which comes first — does science come first or does technology? In the vast majority of cases of the past, technology predates science. Meaning, people knew how to do something but did not have a scientific understanding of why it all worked. 

For example, people have been making iron tools for over 3,200 years. Indians were making Wootz steel and tools using steel for over 2,300 years. They had the technology but they did not know why the materials they created using the techniques they had discovered worked the way they did.

The science behind iron (scientific symbol Fe) was discovered only in the last couple of centuries. That means that the science of iron and steel was understood only over two millennia after the relevant technology was discovered.

Similarly, people have been using heat engines for many centuries. The technology for the invention of the first commercial steam engine was developed by Newcomen in 1712 but the science of heat engines (the laws of thermodynamics) was discovered only in the 1850s. Thus the science of heat engines was developed over a century after the technology was in use and the engineering advances made.

This is true for biology too. First people figured out how to genetically modify through selective breeding over multiple generations of trails, various animals, fruits and vegetables over thousands of years. Most of the foods we eat today, including staples such as wheat and rice, have been genetically modified but the science of genetics is very recent, starting with the work of Watson and Crick who discovered the structure of DNA in 1953.

Modern Science precedes Technology

However, this pattern of science being subsequent to technology is beginning to change in our modern world. These days scientific advancements usually provide guidance for the development of technology. For instance, the science of light and its properties guided the development of laser (short for “light amplification through the stimulated emission of radiation”) technology. There was no way for humanity to stumble blindly into the technology for lasers. 

To reiterate the point: science, technology and engineering although intimately related are distinct concepts. It is common for technology to create tools that lead to advances in science, which then lead to advances in technological development — which gives rise to a virtuous cycle of increasing advancement in science and technology. Therefore the question “which came first, science or technology?” is analogous to the question “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

Abstract technologies

Thus far we have focused on technology of physical objects. But the technology of abstract objects is extremely important and is responsible for most of the marvels of our modern world. Consider a technology that we are all intimately familiar with — the decimal positional number system that was independently invented in several places, and most certainly in India.

The decimal positional number system can be contrasted with another well-known ancient system for representing numbers — the Roman number system. The Roman numerals representation of a decimal number, say, 7834 is the forbidding string of alphabets, viz., MMMMMMMDCCCXXXIV.

If you are using the decimal positional system of representation, you have the technology (meaning that you know how) to multiply the decimal numbers 723 by 432 and quickly arrive at the product 312,336 but you’d be totally out of luck if you had to multiply DCCXXIII by CDXXXII.

Roman numerals work somewhat when doing arithmetic involving small counting numbers. But without the technology of the positional number system, arithmetic involving indefinitely large natural numbers (that is, positive and negative integers such as +7382 and -3492) and real numbers (numbers which have a decimal point in them such as 38.45)  would be impossible, and we would not have the modern world at all if we had been limited to the Roman number system.

We should note in passing that the positional number system is not limited to base 10, the decimal system. You can have any base, such as the binary positional number system commonly used in digital computers where they use only two digits, 0 and 1.

Arithmetic is fundamental. But so are higher levels of abstractions such as the technology of algebra and the calculus. The latter two, beside other advancements, required the development of notations. The technology for the mathematics of matrix and linear algebra heavily relied on the invention of special notations.

{The above is an excerpt from a work in progress. I am posting this here to get back to blogging.}


[1] As an unknown person pointed out, “Any idiot can build a bridge that stands; it takes an engineer to build a bridge that barely stands.” This is where economics comes into the picture. A bridge that barely meets the design criteria but does not exceed them demands skill, and is economical and therefore preferred.

Author: Atanu Dey


2 thoughts on “Technology”

  1. Interesting post, especially about how technology first emerges through experimentation and then the science and theories explaining the technology are formulated, and in many ways, this is what is happening with the current AI revolution.

    Your blog reminded me of another article I had read in Quanta Magazine and a brief comment I had made about it here –

    This was the comment –

    This article on Quanta magazine – by Robbert Dijkgraaf is similar in some of its content to the above blog post by Prof Jordan( It is often tempting to think of new science and knowledge emerging, first, from an abstract idea, then going through rigors of experimentation, and then finding broad and widely used applications.

    But we have had examples in the past where this was not the case, for example – laws of thermodynamics and laws of fluid dynamics.

    The laws of thermodynamics were formulated only after first constructing the steam engines in the 18th century and gradually improving their design over the next many years, and through this churn mathematical laws and theories emerged.

    We observed the same pattern with fluid mechanics too – humans first built ships and naval vessels and iteratively improved them over millennia, and only later did laws of fluid dynamics, Navier-Stokes equations, etc.. emerge.

    AI seems to be in a similar stage, we have applications and systems deployed in production, but we don’t quite have a grasp on the theory yet.


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