In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Science and Technology in War

  • Introduction
  • Seminal Studies
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographical Essays and Sources
  • Journals
  • Ancient War
  • Middle Ages and Renaissance
  • Early Modern Period
  • Industrial War
  • Imperialism
  • World War I
  • World War II
  • The Atomic Age
  • The American Postwar Experience
  • The Computer Age
  • War at Sea
  • Air War
  • The Space Age

Military History Science and Technology in War
William J. Astore
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 February 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0054


Science, technology, and warfare exist in a nexus of dependencies and possibilities. Science may be defined as organized knowledge; technology, as applied knowledge; and warfare, as organized violence. But warfare generates chaos, leading to unpredictability, uncertainty, and even irrationality. The rationality associated with science and technology rests uneasily with the chaos of war. That said, as long as humans have fought, they have sought advantages in speed, firepower, protection, reach, and similar qualities amenable to enhancements by rational methods of science and engineering. Some of history’s best minds––Archimedes of Syracuse, Leonardo da Vinci, J. Robert Oppenheimer––devoted much of their lives working as military engineers or scientists. The challenge is to situate science, technology, warfare and its practitioners into broader historical and social contexts, thereby revealing linkages to political structures, economic concerns, logistical and material considerations, and moral beliefs and constraints.

Seminal Studies

Eight studies pointed the way for sophisticated analysis of science, technology, and warfare. They have become classics in the field. Mumford 1934 highlights the intrusion of military imperatives and values on technological change, a critique the author develops further in Mumford 1967–1970. Holley 1953 illustrates the importance of doctrine to the development and effectiveness of weapons in war; Morison 1966 shows how commitments to preexisting modes of training and fighting may discourage technical innovation. Nef 1968 and Kranzberg and Pursell 1967 provide context on the economic and technical factors driving changes in weaponry and warfare in the industrial age. Cipolla 1988 and Smith 1977 are model case studies of groundbreaking developments in a Western way of war that drew strength from its cannon-bearing oceangoing vessels and its ability to mass-produce firearms for its foot soldiers. White 1962 shows how the marriage of comparatively simple technology (stirrups) within a complex social structure (feudal Europe) can have astonishing impact and staying power.

  • Cipolla, Carlo M. Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400–1700. Manhattan, KS: Sunflower University Press, 1988.

    Classic study that highlights cannon-laden galleons as Europe’s weapon of power projection in the early modern period. Concludes that non-Western peoples had to adopt or adapt to Western technology or be subjugated. Whichever path they chose led to a loss of indigenous cultural and intellectual diversity vis-à-vis “the West.” Originally published in 1966 (New York: Pantheon).

  • Holley, I. B., Jr. Ideas and Weapons: Exploitation of the Aerial Weapon by the United States during World War I; A Study in the Relationship of Technological Advance, Military Doctrine, and the Development of Weapons. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1953.

    Privileges doctrine as defining “the scope and potential capabilities” of weapons systems and its foundational role in shaping which weapons will be selected for development. Doctrine defines roles and responsibilities, but more importantly it shapes what is considered to be desirable or even possible.

  • Kranzberg, Melvin, and Carroll W. Pursell Jr., eds. Technology in Western Civilization. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

    Standard reference source in the history of technology; see in particular Thomas A. Palmer’s chapter on “Military Technology” in Volume 1, and Edward L. Katzenbach Jr.’s article on “The Mechanization of War, 1880–1919” in Volume 2.

  • Morison, Elting E. Men, Machines, and Modern Times. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1966.

    Especially strong on bureaucratic resistance to technological change and the way in which change creates uncertainty and thus resistance within tradition-minded military circles.

  • Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934.

    Classic statement on the interconnectivity of technology with civilization and culture, by the doyen of the field. “In short,” says Mumford, “the partnership between the soldier, the miner, the technician, and the scientist is an ancient one.” Filled with provocative insights, for example, weapons and machines as “a means of creating a dehumanized response in the enemy or victim,” a facilitator of estrangement as well as of death. Essential.

  • Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine. 2 vols. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967–1970.

    Irascible, at times brilliant, critique of technology and its dehumanizing qualities; each volume concludes with an annotated bibliography whose pithy assessments are often spot on and always entertaining. Volume 1, Technics and Human Development; Volume 2, The Pentagon of Power.

  • Nef, John U. War and Human Progress: An Essay on the Rise of Industrial Civilization. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968.

    Classic statement of the interconnectivity of war with the industrial revolution, commerce, and capitalism. Comprehensive and erudite. Originally published in 1950 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul).

  • Smith, Merritt Roe. Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology: The Challenge of Change. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.

    Winner of the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize in 1978, a model study of arms manufacturing in antebellum America that addresses “The American System” of manufacturing (interchangeable parts and mechanization), as well as workers’ reactions (and resistance) to the same. Based on deep archival research.

  • White, Lynn, Jr. Medieval Technology and Social Change. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

    Groundbreaking work that highlighted the role of stirrups in the ascendancy of knights as an arm of shock and decision in feudal Europe. Criticized, undeservedly so, for its apparent technological determinism.

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