Technological regression: necessity as the mother of invention

In this ongoing essay I chart unexepected and fascinating examples of technological regression in times of shortage and crisis.


Here I provide some weird and wonderful examples of what is known as technological regression. My thoughts on this have been strongly influenced by David Edgerton's highly readable book, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (2006), which I read during my undergraduate degree. This BBC interview with David here gives some excellent insights into the book. Since then, I enjoyed many discussions at Imperial about how we can develop and use this approach.  

Just as it is not obvious how technologies will be developed or used in the future, it is also not obvious how they have been used in the past. Also, inventions do not simply emerge in a linear, predictable fashion, gracefully upgrading themselves from one advancement to the next. Innovation can be a messy, multi-directional, or even non-directional business. Shortages, sieges, embargos, poverty, natural disasters, wars, and many other things can force people to innovate in interesting ways. Here are some examples, which I shall be updating now and then: 

1. The Soviet city of Magnitogorsk in 1936 was remote, suffered severe supply problems, and resources were almost always diverted towards factory building: 

Within 600 kilometers of the city there were only two small furniture factories whose production was earmarked for residences. So some people began making their own furniture, a few even using nickel, which for a time was a bit less scarce than wood. [1] 

2. A besieged monastery in the south of Spain at the outbreak of civil war in summer 1936: 

In the south, near Andújar, a detachment of 1,200 civil guards and Falangists was holding out in the mountain monastery of Santa María de la Cabeza under Captain Cortés. Nationalist pilots devised an original method of dropping fragile supplies. They attached them to live turkeys which descended flapping their wings, thus serving as parachutes which could also be eaten by the defenders. [2]

3. Of course, not all technological regression has to involve machines or gadgets. Techniques can regress too. Having failed to spark the world revolution, and having adopted a rigid, old fashioned military hierarchy, the communists who arrived in Spain were quite different from the revolutionary poets most Spaniards were expecting:

As soon as they arrived, the German communists put up a large slogan in their quarters proclaiming 'We Exalt Discipline', while the French posted precautions against venereal disease ... The International Brigades followed the 5th Regiment in introducing the saluting of officers. 'A salute is a sign that a comrade who has been an egocentric individualist in private life has adjusted to the collective way of getting things done. A salute is proof that our Brigade is on its way from being a collection of well-meaning amateurs to a precision implement for eliminating fascists'. [3] 

4. The topical movie Chariots of Fire (1981) depicts many advancements that had been made by the time the 1924 Olympic games came around. This image of the running track, which we have little reason to doubt, suggests that one element of track athletics - in this case the method of lane division - has actually been de-scientised since:

As far as I know, the 1924 Olympics were the first Olympics in which similar lane dividers were used in swimming pools. Unlike the track dividers in the picture above, they're still in use in swimming pools all over the world to this day.   

5. In the late 2000s, unskilled Albanian labourers were used to repackage bullets and artillery shells by hand, so that illicit (and sometimes low quality) armaments could be sold as legal and new:

The work involved removing the component parts of the shells from the crates, setting to one side the fuses and projectiles, and then opening the casing, from which the detonators and gunpowder were removed. This was all undertaken in the most primitive way, by hand. The only mechanized equipment at the site was a military bulldozer, which pushed the piles of projectiles towards the nearby field. They filled two fields of about 2,000 square meters. [4]

6. With the ongoing debates over the role of central banks and the Euro, don't forget that methods of exchange can regress too. During the Spanish Civil War, central peseta supplies were so short that rural anarchist collectives issued their own transaction vouchers. In a move reminiscent of present-day debates on localised monies, it is interesting that these coupons relied on trust and could only be redeemed locally:


7. There has been no historical period of technological regression so massive in scale and scope as the collapse of the Roman Empire. As time went forward from c.400-850AD, features of daily life under the Romans such as literacy, law, administration, currency, religion, and even house size appeared to go backwards by hundreds of years. 

Decline and Fall: despite much modern-day discussion of relative decline,

some entire civilizations have completely disappeared. 


But this process was far from even. As G.M. Trevelyn noted in 1959, the Roman settlements at Bath, Canterbury, Chester, Lincoln, London, and York remained relatively populated due to their proximity to trading channels such as rivers and the already ancient, but sturdy, Roman roads. In contrast:

Silchester, Wroxeter, Verulamium, and many other towns ceased for ever to be inhabited. St Albans stands half a mile from the site of Verulamium, on the other side of the river; it is as though the old side had been purposely avoided. Villas and cities are constantly being dug up out of the ground, in places given over to tillage, pasture, or moor. But for some centuries the Roman ruins must have stood, as familiar a sight as the roofless abbeys under the Stuart Kings, a useful stone quarry sometimes by day, but at night haunted in the imagination of the Saxon peasant by the angry ghosts of the races that his forefathers had destroyed. Fear lest the dead should rise shrouded in their togas, may have been one reason why so many sites were never reoccupied at all. [6]


(c) Michael Weatherburn (November 2011-October 2013) 


References (so far):

[1] Steven Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (London: University of California Press, 1997), p.271. My thanks to Matthew Paskins of UCL for reminding me of this example. 

[2] Antony Beevor, The Battle For Spain: The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (London: Phoenix, 2007 edn.), p.138.

[3] Ibid., pp.180-1.

[4] Andrew Feinstein, The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011), p.350.

[5] Diego Abad de Santillan, 'A Note on the Difficult Problems of Reconstruction' in Sam Dolgoff (ed), The Anarchist Collectives: Workers' Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution, 1936-1939 (New York: Free Life Editions, 1974), p.72. 

[6] G.M. Trevelyn, A Shortened History of England (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959), p.46.

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