David Edgerton. Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. xviii + 270 pp. $26.
This refreshing new book offers a wonderfully sobering antidote to the neotechnophilia that often characterizes our society. In his romp through 20th-century technology, Edgerton marvels not at the progression of new technologies but at the persistence of old ones and the ways in which they have shaped, and continue to shape, the fabric of our lives. He challenges the innovation-centered stories that have come to dominate recent histories of technology and instead exposes the ways in which the old is sustained. Edgerton demonstrates the role of the old thematically by the varied tasks assigned to technologies (production, war, killing, and invention) and the social structures that keep them going (nation-states and maintenance). Of particular interest is Edgerton’s attention to the chemical industry. Stories of innovation and invention that hail high-energy physics and, more recently, biotechnology, omit the role that chemistry—in particular chemical engineering—has played and continues to play in both academic and industrial science and technology. Indeed, in the 19th century, long before industry–university relations became a research model, chemists were already providing a bridge between these two societal sectors. --Jody Roberts
Fabrizio Pregadio. Great Clarity: Daoism and Alchemy in Early Medieval China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006. xvii+367 pp. $60.
Most scholars of Chinese alchemy have focused on two phases: the "external" alchemy (waidan) fashionable from about the 7th century to the 10th, in which alchemists cooked metallic mixtures in crucibles, and the "internal" form (neidan) that gradually supplanted waidan. Neidan was meant to achieve the same result by generating the elixir inside the practitioner's own body through physical discipline and meditation. Pregadio traces the rise and fall of an earlier Chinese alchemy that appears in scriptures from the 3rd to 6th centuries and was associated with the Great Clarity tradition of Daoism (or Taoism). Readers educated in chemistry will enjoy the author's annotated translations of these scriptures, which specify the steps for producing elixirs that would protect the successful practitioner from aging, injury, and demons and help him communicate with deities. Great Clarity alchemy spread quickly in southern China, but by the 7th century, proponents of newer, more powerful Daoist lineages there demoted the status of Great Clarity scriptures and reinterpreted alchemy as a way to understand the cosmos rather than to join the heavenly bureaucracy. --Hilary A. Smith
Bakelite napkin ring
©2010 Chemical Heritage Foundation