Summary and conclusion

Homo sapiens—that means us—differ from all other species in its competence in making things out of materials. We are not alone in the ability to make: termites build towers, birds build nests, beavers build dams; all creatures, in some way, make things. The difference lies in the competence demonstrated by humans and in their extraordinary (there can be no other word) ability to expand and adapt that competence through research and development.

The timeline of Figure 1.1 illustrates this expansion. There is a ten­dency to think that progress of this sort started with the Industrial Revolu­tion, but knowledge about and development of materials have a longer and more continuous history than that. The misconception arises because of the bursts of development in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, forgetting the technological developments that occurred during the great eras of the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman empires—not just to shape stone, clay, and wood and to forge and cast copper, tin, and lead, but also to find and mine the ores and to import them over great distances.

Importing tin from a remote outpost of the Roman Empire (Cornwall, England, to Rome, Italy—3300 km by sea) to satisfy the demands of the Roman State hints at an emerging materials dependence. The dependence has grown over time with the deployment of ever more manmade materi­als until today it is almost total. As you read this text, then, do so with the perspective that materials, our humble servants throughout history, may be evolving into our masters.

Updated: September 24, 2015 — 9:29 am