Despite its obvious importance, the history of Indian technology has begun to be studied only recently, and Irfan Habib has been one of the pioneers in this area. We are glad therefore to be able to publish as the lead article of the current issue of Social Scientist the text of a lecture delivered by him at the I.I.T., Delhi, on the history of Indian technology. While dismissing the view that pre-modern India did not produce any significant cost-reducing technological innovations, Habib nonetheless draws attention to the delayed arrival in India of certain crucial innovations, e.g., the spinning wheel, the limited range of application of others, e.g., the right-angled gearing mechanism, and the slow pace of diffusion of still others, e.g., worm-gearing.
A host of factors have been adduced to explain the uneven pace of diffusion of innovations in different contemporary cultures and in different periods. These include inter alia the level of wages of the artisans and the labourers, the attitude of the elite to craft-technology, and the relative profusion of manual skills. Habib is sceptical of the purely economic ('low-wages-impede-innovations') argument. And in this he is obviously right: apart from anything else, the argument is based on shaky theoretical premises. No matter what the wage level, output-augmenting or time-saving innovations would always be worth introducing, and many of these innovations also happen to be labour-saving. Tractorisation in modem India for instance has nothing to do with the cost of bullock-labour or of human-labour;
its rationale consists in its being a time-saving device, though it does displace human and bullock-labour. Since all innovations are not labour-saving, and since even those that happen to be labour-saving often get introduced because they are simultaneously output-augmenting or time-saving, the argument that low wages impede innovation does not carry much conviction.
Habib finds some merit in the other two arguments, viz. the attitude of the elite to craft-technology, and the relative abundance of skills owing to excessive craft-specialisation induced by the caste system, though neither constitutes a convincing comprehensive explanation. He underscores an additional element in the picture, namely the role of military conquests in bringing about accelerated transmission of techniques. The whole area nonetheless remain full of puzzles, and the
Social Scientist, Vol. 20, Nos. 3-4, March-April 1992.