Social Scientist. v 20, no. 226-27 (Mar-April 1992) p. 1.


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IRFAN HABIB*

Pursuing the History of Indian Technology Pro-modern Modes of Transmission of Power

When the practitioner of an ancient craft like me is honoured by an invitation to address an audience at the LLT., the best I can do is to speak on a field where my discipline can claim some proximity with the the principal concern of the hosts. And this explains my choice of the theme today, viz., the history of technology. Compared to the long history of History, going back to Herodotus and Sima Qian, the history of technology is fairly young. In 1867 Marx was still protesting that there was no critical history of technology of the eighteenth century, even though 'technology discloses man*s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conception that flow from them*.1 But within this century there has been an accelerating interest in the field. Marc Bloch made it part of the comprehensive history that was his ideal.2 The larger outlines of the history of European technology have been reconstructed by Usher, Singer, and Porbes, and, with very provocative insights and speculations, by Lynn White Jr., among others.3 There has been the towering figure too of Joseph Needham, closely scrutinising the scientific and technological achievements of China and setting them by the side of developments all over the world.4

In comparison, work on the history of technology in India began late and slowly. P.K. Code here was a true pioneer. His artless style concealed a critical and objective mind, and his queries and discoveries ranged over the history of the most ordinary, and, therefore, the most important things of life.5 In the last twenty years or so the interest has greatly increased; and I am happy to find that I have not been alone in publishing papers on various aspects or phases of pre-modern Indian technology. One rather embarrassing lesson that I have drawn from this experience is that speculations are as necessary as they are risky. Our information, scrappy as it often is, tends to be suddenly enlarged in a radical fashion with the tracing of one passage or another in a text,

Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. The Rajiv Bambawale Memorial Lecture, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi.

Social Scientist, Vol. 20, Nos. 3-4, March-April 1992.



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