The Effect of Cultural Attitudes on Technological Advancement

Taylor Rhodes

European Exploration

The story of culture’s effect on technological development in human history involves many factors and is very long and complex. There is great importance in the way a societies’ culture directs its technological advancement. Some countries are in fierce competition for survival with one another, like the European countries. Such countries must constantly improve or seek out new technologies to give them an advantage over neighbors. In contrast other countries, such as China, may be endowed with numerous resources and not be in direct competition with other countries. In this case, technological advancement may not be a direct impetus. Advancements may be focused inward and not in defense of others. Advancements of a country’s technology are indicative of such small details of culture. Due to the close proximity of European countries to one another, each country was forced to constantly innovate and advance their technology in order to not be dominated (Even invaded) by neighboring countries thus instilling a fierce culture, involving the need to dominate others, that drove European technology and innovation and allowed them to conquer the world.

European countries’ close proximity to one another inspired nationalistic cultures that were very competitive and constantly on the offensive. European countries were constantly at battle over the scarce land and limited resources. Small areas translated into resources that would provide advantages over an enemy.

In China’s case, there were no direct outsiders to prompt technological advances. China also had little contact with cultures beyond its boundaries and took an isolationist attitude towards the outside world. China also had vast lands with many resources that allowed for an isolationist view; there was no need to travel elsewhere in search for riches. On the contrary, Europeans were in search of China’s and the Far East’s luxuries. The culture that emerged from China was quite different when compared to Europe’s. The copious amount of resources within China, combined with the stability from a non-existent threat of outside invasion, lead to great technological improvements. The Chinese had invented gunpowder by the sixth century while the Europeans didn’t discover it until the fifteenth. (Gunpowder History ). They had also perfected many other technologies before the Europeans yet the Chinese had no direct need to invest this technology into warfare and invade other nations. This enormous cultural detail affected Chinese technology in that it was not employed to conquer other nations. If China had not had such an isolationist cultural attitude, our world would be very different from what we recognize as today

Chinese Gunpowder

In contrast to China’s isolationist cultural and political attitude, the European countries were quite the opposite. There was also a great deal of sharing knowledge and ideas between countries as trade occurred and knowledge diffused between countries and different classes of people. One aspect of society that did not diffuse naturally was the availability of resources. Europe was not endowed with the luxury goods and spices found in the East. As countries began to become ever more competitive with one another, the search for a way to acquire gold and riches became first order. The Atlantic European countries were the first to begin the age of exploration with the Portuguese’s first fleet, followed by the Dutch and the English’s own equally formidable fleets. (Cipolla). These three small nations invested, at great risk, in naval fleets which they hoped to secure and bring back to their nation great wealth. Because these nations were small in relation to larger states such as France and Spain, there was more of a push to invest in technology that would lead to the acquisition of valuable goods elsewhere. This is not to say that larger European nations did not try their hand in exploration, there just wasn’t that great of a need for resources to prompt such an early attempt at advancing technology in order to expedite exploration.

England is a prime example of a nation that had few natural resources. As an Island, Britain also had limited amounts of land for its ever growing population. There were also numerous amounts of second and third (landless) sons that were itching to get a chance at fortune and fame; this was a proportion of the population that Britain could employ to explore for its own benefit ( European History ). These men would also serve as the first colony members and defenders in many costal settlements around the world.

The need for Britain to become an influential player in European politics was invested directly into the development of a superior navy. The British elite’s cultural want to become powerful and influential among the royal courts of Europe led to funds directly allocated to naval development. Britain needed to secure a route to the East in order to ensure a regular supply of riches and spices that would allow it to become powerful (Adas).

The technological advancement of ship building allowed for better war ships that proved more formidable. The improvements of lighter cannons that could be pulled behind horses also improved military prowess. Domination was complete with the union of cannons and the improved ship technology. Together, the ultimate war ship was built and allowed Britain, as well as other countries, to rule the seas. The war ship also allowed for the control of trade by sea through the ability to cute off routes by force. This domination allowed for many costal settlements and for the expansion of power (Cipolla). Britain’s cultural want to become powerful in the European world drove it to develop naval technologies that catapulted it to become a formidable naval power. This naval power allowed for Britain to colonize much of the new world. Drawing upon its “second son” population, which was to eager gain personal riches, to act as the manpower to secure luxury goods and trade routes implicitly lead to Britain becoming a formidable power of its time.

European Sailing Vessel

In closing, it is important to note that the countries that became world powers as a result of exploration (Founding colonies and spreading power around the globe) were not able to do so because they were the most technologically advanced or the most enlightened at the onset of exploration. On the contrary, China and the East were by far more advanced than the European world. They already had knowledge and the technology of how to forge iron and cast steel long before the Europeans discovered it. If such technologies as gunpowder and steel had been applied to engineer advanced warfare to attack and conquer the West, our history would be dramatically altered. The fact that the East and the Chinese did not have any cultural need to motivate exploration is a crucial fact of why the Europeans were able to dominate world history as they did. The smaller Atlantic European countries’ cultural drive of wanting resources and riches to advance their power was what drove them to advance their navy and naval warfare technology. Without this cultural dimension, technological advancements would have been very different and there would not have been such a technological advancement leading to the European age of exploration.




Adas, Michael, "Machines as the Meaure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance", Cornell Univ. Press 1989, pp. 1-35.


Cipolla, Carlo M., Epilog from "Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400-1700" Sunflower Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 132-148.

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last updated 4/22/08