Monthly Archives: August 2015

Review: Technology of the Ancient World

book cover

Technology of the Ancient World

Henry Hodges’ book “Technology of the Ancient World” is a fascinating look at the origins of the modern worlds technology. Did humans first chip rocks to get a sharp edge or did they first twist plant fibers together to make a thread by rolling them between palm and thigh? Chipped rocks leave evidence that we can see but plant fibers rotted away thousands of years ago. The story of halting progress interrupted by times of conservative malaise is fascinating although, as Hodges points out, there are holes in our knowledge. Without trying the book shows that our love of vivid colors and beauty is ageless and, contrary to what we are sometimes told, world trade has been with us as long as we have been us. Fascinating as this book is it is badly flawed.

It was first published in 1970 and was written using research even older than that. I am not concerned that some of the gaps that Hodges mentions may have been filled by now but by the author’s, by 1970s’ society’s, dismissal of the world outside the “West”. When is the last time you heard of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt referred to as part of “the West”? Outside of the founding of “Western Civilization” I would guess the answer would have to be never. Once Hodges has examined the classical “Western Civilization”, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, he moves on the the rest of the world, the “Barbarians”. First he looks at northern Europe where he admits that some technology outstrips that of Rome. Roman ships, built for the calm Mediterranean pale in comparison to the ships built by the “barbarians” of the north. He also mentions several innovations from the north, great leaps, that never took hold like roller bearings for cart wheels. He attributes this to a failure of the northern people and never offers conquest by Rome as a possible reason the technology was not adopted more widely.

The people of northern Europe got much better treatment than the few pages devoted to other areas of the world. He claims that India imported bronze technology from “the West” but admits that there skills at casting metal were more advanced. We are told that China and the West both imported the composite bow from the Eurasian nomads but that the Eurasian nomads simple dispersed technology, they did not originate it. I am tempted to pull out my copy of David Hackett Fischer’s “Historians’ fallacies: toward a logic of historical thought” (1971) and look for examples of logical fallacies he might have drawn from this book. The flaws I found here have also renewed my desire to read Edward W. Said’s “Orientalism” (1979).

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Review: One Righteous Man, Samuel Battle, shattering the color line in New York

book cover: One Righteous Man

Samuel Battle and the shattering of the color line in New York

Samuel Battle led an interesting life in interesting times. Arthur Browne’s, “One Righteous Man” a biography of Battle, the first African American on the unified greater New York City police department impressive even though I had a few reservations about it. Born one generation away from slavery Battle grew as a bit of what would later be called a juvenile delinquent but managed to put that behind him as a young adult when he traveled to New York in search of opportunity. He found that the color of his skin meant that doors were shut to him in the north just as they were back home. Battle makes his own opportunities and after several underpaid dead end jobs he finds opportunity as a porter at Grand Central Station. With a secure job he finds a wife and starts to build a life. When the community comes looking for a candidate to become the first black man on the city police force he risks his security and takes the challenge. What he managed to achieve was so incredible that Langston Hughes was commissioned to write his biography.

Browne’s writing is clear and easy to read, like a popular history should be. My biggest concern was, is, could this be more memoir than history? The wealth of Browne’s sources seem to be Battle’s own words, Langston Hughes’ unpublished manuscript and an oral history project a graduate student recorded with Battle. Arthur Brown makes good use of these resources along with Harlem and city newspapers to flesh out not just Battle’s story but it seems, sanitized. It strikes me as disingenuous that the biggest problems Battle had integrating the police force was the silent treatment and sleeping in the attic. I suspect that the baton swinging cops of the 1910s would have been more actively outspoken. Browne includes the story of integrating Harlem and the New York City fire department along with Battle’s story. He also gives us a look at the wider story of African American history in the early 20th century whenever it is needed to fully comprehend the times.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is the name dropping, if it is fair to call it that. If pressed I could come up with some people that don’t show up in Battle’s story but he managed to meet and get acquainted with such a range of celebrities and power brokers, from heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who did not tip, to Eleanor Roosevelt, who deeply impressed Battle by simply giving a glass of water to a black woman speaker at a benefit. That insight into the impact a small kindness can make alone made the book more than worth reading.

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Filed under Book review, History, Social History