I just read Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages by Frances & Joseph Gies. The book focuses on technological development during the 1,000 years from 500-1500 C.E. The Middle Ages were once cast as an age of regression from the golden age of Greece and Rome until the Renaissance and the Enlightenment saved the day. Furthermore, capitalism is often seen as a product of the last two or three centuries. Modern scholarship debunks these characterizations. This book does a great job at showing the cultural and technological ferment of the Middle Ages, as well as showing how many of the key components of the modern economic world (companies, risk management, double-entry bookkeeping, finance, technological innovation, labor specialization, factories, to name a few) were already coming to flower by 1500. Here are two insights from the end of the book:
… “Asian priority in a wide range of [technological] innovations is established. Asia, however, showed little inclination to borrow, and so, after giving much to others, allowed its own technology to wither, as demonstrated in the history of the two epoch-making inventions of printing and firearms. Each originated in China, but each was allowed to languish, while Europe seized them in both hands to make them major instruments of change. An authority [Timo Myllyntaus] on technology transfer in the modern world asserts that the process ‘is not just a matter of moving some piece of hardware from one place to another… A material infrastructure is not enough. There must also be sufficient nonmaterial infrastructure.’ In the ‘nonmaterial infrastructure’ of medieval Europe was a spirit of progress whose ingredients included intellectual curiosity, a love of tinkering, an ambition ‘to serve God’ and also ‘to grow rich as all men desire to do.’
A sense of progress implies a sense of history, something missing among the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. ‘Lacking any objective understanding of the past – that is, lacking history,’ says [D. S. L.] Cardwell, ‘the hierarchical and slave-owning societies of classical antiquity failed to appreciate the great progress that had been achieved by and through technics.’ On the contrary, the ancients were fond of looking back to what they conceived as a vanished ‘golden age,’ a conception the reverse of progress. The Christian Church, whose pioneering monastic orders made many practical and material contributions to medieval technology, also supplied a noncyclical, straight-line view of history that allowed scope for the idea of progress.” (287-288)
The book concludes with this paragraph:
“’Technology,’ says Melvin Kranzberg, founder of the Society for the History of Technology, ‘is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.’ It is what each age and each society make of it. The Middle Ages used it sometimes wisely, sometimes recklessly, often for dubious purposes, seldom with a thought for the future, and with only a dim awareness of the scientific and mathematical laws governing it. But operating on instinct, insight, trial and error, and perseverance, the craftsman and craftswoman, the entrepreneurs, the working monks and the clerical intellectuals, and the artist-engineers all transformed the world, on balance very much to the world’s advantage.” (291)
I've read a number of books on the history of technology. This is one of the best short surveys I have read, reading more like a novel than a history book.