History of Science and Technology
Learn about the history of science and technology, two distinct but integrated fields. Scientists rely on evolving technology to conduct experiments and validate theories; for example, Galileo using a telescope in the early 1600s to upend the age-old belief that the sun revolved around the Earth. While Galileo is credited with establishing the ground rules for scientific research, he was not the first scientist to place the sun at the center of the universe. One century before Galileo, Nicolaus Copernicus’ study of the heavens led to the publication of his groundbreaking theories of heliocentrism.
The Scientific Revolution reached its zenith in the 17th century, with Sir Isaac Newton leading the way; his unveiling of the laws of motion launched the birth of modern physics. William Harvey, an Englishman like Newton, established modern biology with his study of the circulation of the blood. Meanwhile, Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens’ work advanced the fields of optics and mechanics. Huygens also invented the pendulum clock.
Technology and innovation reshaped the world over the next few centuries. The steam engine was the driving force that powered the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s, while the invention of the cotton gin hastened the coming of the Civil War. The locomotive and internal combustion engine led to the development of railroads and highways, and transformed both economics and American society at large. Air travel would have the same effect decades later. And the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and motion pictures changed the way people conducted business and spent their leisure time.
In the 20th century, several key figures further revolutionized science: Albert Einstein, with his theories of relativity; Max Planck, through his study of quantum theory; and Werner Heisenberg, who all but created the field of quantum mechanics. In the life sciences, one of the most historic breakthroughs was by James Watson and Francis Crick, who mapped the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule. Moreover, scientific research was vital in eradicating dreaded scourges like smallpox and polio.
The development of computers in the latter half of the 20th century led to even greater scientific progress. Computers allowed researchers to process data and perform calculations instantly—and with greater accuracy. Furthermore, scientists could test their theories using computer models. In the early 21st century, the internet and social media have influenced the way people interact with each other. Indeed, computer technology has changed the world in ways Galileo and Newton couldn’t have possibly imagined.