Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: History of Technology Timeline

In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” describing how his inventions (and those of others) existed because they built upon existing ideas and achievements. With this quote, he himself was improving upon an existing reference, paraphrasing from John of Salisbury’s 1159 Latin text Metalogicon.

Our current technology didn’t just emerge. Instead, technological developments evolve from prior technological developments. Media have played and continue to play vital roles in this innovation. Mass communication (or the ability to mass produce media content) isn’t just about providing books and newspapers. The ability to record ideas in a form that can be distributed profoundly affected all facets of life. With books, for the first time, people could build on others’ ideas then progress forward. You didn’t need to be within earshot to learn from another person. Many different people, often from different places, contribute to the success of an invention.
Let’s take the history of the car for example.


Depiction of 1908 Ford Model T Touring car, from Ford’s full-page advertisement of the first Model T in the Oct. 1, 1908 issue of Life magazine, volume 52, page 365.

The Ford Motor Company didn’t just magically create a working car in 1908. They relied and improved upon existing car designs, created by Karl Benz in 1885 and Charles and Frank Duryea in 1893. These designers depended on earlier inventions and conceptualizations to make their automobiles work: the internal combustion engine, the carriage design and parts of a car. Oh, and the concept itself–that a vehicle could be self-propelled (conceived and invented by Leonard da Vinci in 1478).

Leonardo da Vinci / Public domain

Moving forward in time, this video conveys the many people involved from bringing the first cars to our modern day automobiles:

For each of these inventions, people could read about what had been done and then improve upon the existing designs.

History of Technology Timeline Activity
1. Choose something that we use in everyday life (an appliance, item of clothing, your phone or other entertainment technology, or anything that you are curious about).
2. Research the roots of that item. Identify all the different “players” that contributed–those who invented earlier models (even if they didn’t work) or pieces of the technology.
3. Using a large piece of paper, create a timeline that shows the evolution. For the car, we would start with da Vinci and map it out to today’s car. You could also depict this progression through a drawing or photo collage.

We take for granted the technology that we have. It’s important to remember that Newton was right. We must stand on the shoulders of giants to move forward.