Technology’s Cultural Roots

“A technology evolves within a culture and its particular demands and preoccupations, intertwined with that society’s particular environment (Teresi, 356)”.  As the human race and daily life becomes more advanced, there are times when it becomes necessary to consider the variables that influence our society.  These variables-religion, tradition, environment, etc. - make up the culture of a society.  New technologies are created when the people living in a particular society feel that one of these variables needs to be expanded upon or changed (Class Discussion, Feb. 11).  A particularly relevant example is the United States Space program.  The space program grew out of the Cold War in the 1960’s.  The technological needs of this effort, specifically small computers, heat resistant ceramics, radio communication, and power cells lead to the products and devices that we enjoy today.

            Societies, with their specific cultural needs, influenced the development of their own technology.  For example, the Chinese in ninth century A.D. were fascinated with perfumes, noxious bombs, explosions, gases, and smoke.  They burned incense and fumigated their houses for health as well as spiritual reasons.  In the Chinese culture, smoke and loud explosions were connected to the spiritual and supernatural world.  Chinese priests invented gunpowder by combining charcoal, saltpeter, and sulfur.    Their military-centered society saw the advantages gunpowder gave them in battle situations as well.  The Chinese were the first to invent land mines, fire lances, and grenades.  When Europeans learned about gunpowder, they began experimenting (Teresi, 355-56).  Before long, cannons and guns were invented and warfare would never be the same again.  In this example, the needs for religious practices resulted in military advancement.

            However, before the Chinese discovered the many uses of gunpowder, the Assyrian empire came into power in the Tigris- Euphrates area around 1100 B.C.  The Assyrians were aggressive and fierce in nature.  They were the first army to use only weapons of iron and they invented various battle armaments from movable towers and battering rams to unique siege engines and novel chariots.  They constructed roads for the movement of troops and created a postal system for army communication (Teresi, 329-30).  The violent and war-driven Assyrian culture was based around their military and the new technologies that emerged from that era demonstrated their aggressive nature.

            While many societies had cultures that revolved around warfare, religion has always played a major role in the cultural aspects of civilizations and the development of new technologies.  For instance, the Maya, the best known Mesoamerican civilization, started off as simple peasants around 2000 B.C. and emerged as a grand civilization with “magnificent ceremonial buildings, including the highly ornamented temple-pyramids, palaces, and observatories” around A.D. 250 (Teresi 340).  The Maya used their resources, mainly limestone and flint tools, to develop techniques to create a plaster that they used to erect their statues, temples, and other tributes to their Gods.  The corbel arch, another feature of Mayan temples, was invented for religious purposes and had a profound effect on the architecture of the time.  In fact, the corbel arch is seen in architecture today.  A corbel arch lacks a keystone; therefore, there are only nine stone layers in the temple.  The keystone would have added a tenth layer which would violate the Mayan belief in the nine layers of the underworld (Teresi 341).

            Spiritual beliefs as well as military pursuits have been the centralized focus of culture in many great civilizations of the past.  In Paul Erlich’s novel, Human Nature, he states, “a religious apparatus and a military establishment are both prominent features of a state, so it is hardly surprising that religion is also closely connected to warfare

(p 258).”  This idea that religion and war are intertwined appears to justify the creation of many technologies of the past.  Gunpowder was used in grenades and landmines; however, it also created smoke and smells that could be connected with supernatural beings. 

            Greek cities are some of the earliest examples of how military and religious aspects of a culture dictate the technologies created.  Defense was a “prime consideration in the foundation of Greek cities” (Chant, 60).  The majority of the cities were constructed on an elevated area or an acropolis and set back from the sea to avoid naval raids.  Defensive walls and towers were built with squared masonry strong enough to withstand missiles.  The roads used by citizens as well as military personnel were mapped out in a grid-like fashion with residential quarters and buildings, such as sanctuaries and religious centers, intermixed.  French historian Francois de Polignac argues that the Greeks commitment to their deities and religion was the foundation of the city infrastructure (Chant, 62).  Even though the structure of the city was advantageous to and centralized around the military aspects of the culture, all Greek buildings were dedicated to Gods and contained shrines.  Public temples, stadia, palaces, and statues were erected, reinforcing the significance of religion in their culture.  The fact that all citizens in Greek cities could worship the same Gods together shows how the Greeks emphasized the democratic culture (Class Discussion, Feb. 20). 

            Culture, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon man's capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.  The awareness and experiences a person has during their time on Earth is dictated by their surroundings.  Different environments or settings call for unique needs or wants and out of these needs or wants technology is developed.  The technology that evolved from past cultures resulted from many different facets of societal needs and this technology is continuously changing and improving.  If the Chinese had not invented gunpowder for religious purposes, would the history of war have changed?  It is probable that gunpowder would have eventually been invented, but who would have discovered it and when?  What was their culture like; would the smoke and fumes make them feel connected to supernatural beings or would gunpowder strictly be used for war?  Just like the space program created cultural needs and wants over fifty years ago, culture continues to be the driving force for technological developments.


Chant, Colin, "Chapter 2: Greece" in Pre-industrial Cities and Technology, Routledge

            Press, 1999, pp. 48-80.

Ehrlich, Paul R., "Ch.11: Gods, Dive-Bombers, and Bureaucracy" in Human Natures:

            Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect, Island Press, 2000, pp. 253-279.

Teresi, Dick, Lost Discoveries: The ancient roots of modern science, Simon and

            Schuster, 2002, ISBN 0-684-83718-8, pp. 325-367.