According tomedia reports, the great inventions of history are always accompanied by death. It’s not gun manufacturers or nuclear scientists who at least know how lethal they’re inventing, but developers of technology such as printing presses, cars, ships, and so on. These people want to make the world a better place, and they do. But at the same time, these technologies have indirectly claimed the lives of millions of people. So what kind of technological innovation inadvertently “kills” the most people?
Associate Professor of Science, Technology and Society, University of Virginia
In 1963, Tynee Herwig of Winchester’s Light Weapons Company said, “It’s not guns that kill, it’s people.” “But with the help of technology such as guns, the number of human homicides has increased dramatically.
If the lethality of a technology is measured by a percentage of the world’s population, the most deadly technology is ocean-going ships. Innovations in ship design, as well as the advent of navigational equipment such as compasses and crossinstruments, have made ocean navigation a reality. Like guns, ships themselves don’t kill, but their inflated wealth ambitions turn them into a murder tool. Since 1492, for example, Europeans have brought diseases such as smallpox and measles to the Americas by boat, resulting in a sharp decline of nearly 50 million Native Americans in the 16th century.
But to count the total number of people killed, the internal combustion engine (including any technology that uses combustion to do his work) has even higher “achievements” than ocean-going ships. In ancient times, there were original versions of machines that converted heat into power, but the real turn came in 1712, when Thomas Newcomn of England designed a machine that uses fire to produce water vapor and then to propel a piston in a huge cylinder. The whole machine is as big as a house, consumes more coal and does less work. But coal was so cheap at the time that it could be returned simply by pumping water out of the coal mine.
And Neweman released far more energy than he could have imagined. On the basis of his invention, the descendants developed the gasoline engine of the car. The first is a coal-fired steam external combustion engine, and the second is a gasoline-burning internal combustion engine. But in essence, both machines use the same technology, using combustion to drive piston movements, thus turning the chemical energy stored in fossil fuels into useful work.
Until the 18th century, humans could only rely on muscles (including humans and other animals), wind or water. Since 1712, when Newcombe invented the first fuel engine with practical function, the proportion of fossil fuels burned for work has gradually increased. The machine helps people get out of hard work and saves countless lives by improving the distribution of food and drinking water, sewage treatment, and increasing access to health care. But when combined with human greed, the internal combustion engine also caused the death of countless people. For example, the demand for fibre increased significantly after the use of internal combustion engines in British textile mills, which required the colonies to provide more cotton fibers, leading slaves to pay more work to produce cotton. Although the trade in the Atlantic was even before the internal combustion engine, the profits of the trade became even more enticing with the internal combustion engine.
The internal combustion engine also gave birth to the emergence of the new “industrial aristocracy”. Those who came through the industry had no hereditary title, and showed off their social status by showing off their money, such as putting sugar in tea. And sugar production depends entirely on slave labor. The slave trade killed hundreds of millions of people, and slave labor killed a much larger number. Sugar plantations were once the largest labor camps for the dead in the Americas. The internal combustion engine, which was supposed to free humanity from hard work, was combined with greed, discrimination and indifference, but it turned into a killing machine that killed countless people.
Infectious diseases occur earlier than internal combustion engines, but the first global epidemic has occurred since the advent of steamboats. Cholera was once confined to South Asia, but in the 1820s and 1930s the disease began spreading around the world. Steamboats speed up the spread of cholera and expand its reach. In many cities where cholera has spread, the population density would not have been so high had it not been for the internal combustion engine. Machines make people more concentrated and allow cities to support tens of millions of people, making them overcrowded and creating conditions for the rapid spread of disease. In densely populated cities, waterborne infectious diseases such as cholera and typhoid tend to be the most prevalent because sewage pollutes drinking water. Internal combustion engines are a success in this regard, as their emergence makes large sewage treatment plants and waterworks possible and plays a crucial role in preventing the spread of disease.
Between 70 and 90 million people died in car accidents in the 20th century, and 13 million people still die each year. People who live near the main road breathe motor vehicle exhaust all day long, and their life span is shortened. In countries such as the United States, which are highly dependent on driving, the proportion of people suffering from heart disease due to lack of exercise (the number one cause of death in the United States), severe obesity and type 2 diabetes is even higher.
And the biggest destructive power of the internal combustion engine may not yet be revealed. The internal combustion engine was invented to raise water levels, and now the task has expanded to a global scale, and we don’t yet know how to stop it. Carbon dioxide emissions from internal combustion engines contribute to global sea level rise, change the Earth’s climate, threaten people’s lives, food and drinking water supplies, and significantly increase population density. By the internal combustion engine, we are now a lifeline, but partial and inseparable from it. And to contain these threats, we have to come up with all the creativity we have to use in developing internal combustion engines.
Jenny Lee Smith
Associate Professor, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, focusing on food history and food technology
Over the past 40 years, the world’s top three “killers” have been heart disease, cancer and respiratory diseases. Are some technological inventions inadvertently contributing? I can think of two points. First, a variety of machines and chemicals treat food into more delicious, but less nutritious, processed foods, which in part contribute to an increase in the prevalence of cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. It is often difficult to determine the cause of chronic diseases, but a growing number of doctors and epidemiologists believe that modern eating habits are one of the causes of poor health and malnutrition. We are surrounded by an increasing number of people with diabetes and obesity, which are the side effects of a large intake of refined foods. Food processing leads to a significant loss of cellulose, micronutrients and probiotics in food, and a wide variety of processing methods can lead to increased cancer prevalence, increased immune response, and worsening of chronic diseases.
The second biggest culprit I’m going to say is air conditioning. The ability to control the climate gives us a comfortable modern life, but who is controlling who? Without air conditioning, the U.S. “sun belt” (a sunny, warm region south of 36 degrees north latitude) would not have flourished, and tropical cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai would not have become global financial hubs. Modern offices always maintain comfortable temperatures all year round, as do shopping malls and supermarkets. But comfort can sometimes mean deadly. Just as finishing technology removes vitamins, rough tastes and bitter tastes from food, air conditioning removes the need and desire to move outside, move positions, and move in cool late winds. It wasn’t long ago that scientists discovered that sitting for long periods of time had a serious impact on health. There are many kinds of technology that “ties” us to our desks, and air conditioning is undoubtedly one of the biggest culprits. We’re used to indoor work, information economy, shopping and leisure, and electronic devices to be used in cool, dry environments, and to working around the year. We always seem to sit at our desks, staring at the computer screen, constantly producing knowledge and creating value, only to pause and add coats when the office air conditioner is blown too cold.
Assistant Professor of History, Clarkson University
While I’d like to give answers such as “tyre” or “iron”, my answer will depend largely on the definition of “technology” and “accident”. For example, if a pedestrian is “accidentally” hit by a bus, what kind of “technology” is the “technology” to kill him? Is it the windshield that brought the fatal blow? The brakes that didn’t start quickly? Headphones that cause pedestrians not to hear the bus? Or do we have to answer from the point of view that “it’s not guns, it’s people” that technology can kill only if it is humanly intervened? In this way, it is not the bus that kills the pedestrians, but the bus driver. Some historians specialize in the unexpected risks, destructiveness, and consequences of technology.
There’s a tricky question: What exactly do we mean by “accident”? Whether an incident is an accident depends on where it happened, the incident, and the identity of the person concerned. In the case of railways, for example, the infrastructure changes caused by railways in a colonial context have claimed millions of lives, aside from those who have died in railway accidents and construction accidents. During the Great Famine of India at the end of the 19th century, British-built railways continued to take food from the affected areas to meet global demand, regardless of the suffering of the local population of India. Similar situations are not uncommon in the Americas, where structural inequities caused by railroads have had a significant impact on Native Americans. Their deaths may also be an “accident”, after all, not directly caused by railways, but by the unintended consequences of technological progress and nation-building. But the railways were, after all, part of the machine empire, demonstrating in the form of technology the ambitions of the imperialists to root out all those who did not conform to the colonial dream.
I’m not saying that railway accidents kill more people than other technologies, but that the history of railways shows that the more we think about the parties to technology, the risks and the casualties that cause them, the harder it is to answer that question.
Professor of History, Texas Agricultural university, focusing on the history of technology
For more than a century, cars have been one of the number one killers of mankind. About 100 people die in traffic accidents every day in the United States, and tens of thousands more are injured. If 100 people die every day in plane crashes or terrorist attacks, the response must be much more frightening, but we are used to the deaths caused by car accidents. And as the number of cars around the world grows, the death toll is soaring.
In the early 20th century, there was a struggle for right of way. Who is the road for? Who has the right to use them? By the 1930s, pedestrians were forced to leave the road, and as cars were getting faster and faster, the design of the road was becoming less and less suitable for people to walk on. During the outbreak, there were fewer cars on the roads, and many roads were changed to bike-only or pedestrian-only access, one of the few benefits of the outbreak.
That said, there are far more cars today than ever before, and if the death rate per kilometer were the same as in the 1970s, the number of people dying in traffic accidents in the United States each year would be as high as 150,000, rather than “just” 35,000. This shows that the safety of automotive technology has been improving continuously. And driving in Europe and the United States is much safer than the rest of the world.
Assistant Professor of History, University of Pittsburgh, focusing on technical history
Can I say the printing press? It is often pointed out that nationalism is the root cause of most modern wars, such as World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War. Nationalism is also often associated with genocide. Some experts believe that the printing press has played a key role in the spread of nationalism in modern society. Through the printing of newspapers, novels and so on, many people who were thousands of miles apart and who did not know each other began to see each other as the same group. The printing press, which was supposed to be a harmless machine, was inadvertently associated with genocide.
Associate Professor of History, Case Western Reserve University
If you look only at numbers and not by proportion, the exponential increase in global numbers since the 18th century means that the number of deaths in recent centuries has far exceeded previous levels. Today, the global population is close to 8 billion. In 1900, that figure was only 1.5 billion. In 1800, the global total was less than 1 billion. So in a sense, the question is actually about the number of accidental deaths in the industrial age.
On this basis, I would like to point out that the technique that caused the highest number of deaths was the mechanical cigarette machine invented by James Bonsak in 1881.
The cigarette machine invented by Bonsak weighs up to a ton, but the amount of cigarettes produced in a minute is equivalent to an hour’s worth of completion by a skilled cigarette worker. In just five years, tobacco tycoon James Buganan Duke put 10 cigarette machines into use, setting off a mechanized revolution in the industry. By the middle of the 19th century, cigarette machines had added a smoky, dry process that gave tobacco a softer taste, allowing people to breathe smoke slowly into their lungs without having to spit them out of their mouths as quickly as possible. The fast-growing cigarette industry has this powerful tool, and the curtain of a global health disaster has begun.
Long before Columbus discovered America, locals began to enjoy tobacco. By the 17th century, tobacco had become one of the most important export crops in the British colonies. As tobacco spreads in Europe, questions have been raised about its safety, but that has not affected its popularity. By the end of the 19th century, most tobacco was consumed in the form of pipes, cigars or chews. But the cheap price of cigarettes, the ease of use, bold advertising, the emerging global market, and the convenient way to buy it made it popular and quickly. The population boom in the 20th century led to a significant increase in cigarette consumption. These characteristics of cigarettes are based on mass production, an achievement that is naturally attributed to the inventor of the cigarette machine, Bonsack, and his most important client, James Duke.
The proportion of adults who smoke in the U.S. has fallen from more than 40 percent to 15 percent in the past half century, but even so, nearly half a million people die each year from diseases such as heart disease, lung disease and cancer caused by smoking. More than 7 million people die each year from tobacco-related causes worldwide, equivalent to one-tenth of all deaths, according to WHO.
For half a century, public health authorities have been relentlessly promoting the harm that smoking does to the body. In addition, tobacco companies are privately aware of the health risks of their products, while insisting that their products are safe. With all this in mind, should smoking-induced deaths really be counted as “accidents”?
Professor of History, Fordham University
A slave ship counts as one. Although the transatlantic slave trade began as early as the early 16th century, ships dedicated to slave transport did not peak until the 17th and early 19th centuries. These ships are like a moving prison. In a sense, these ships can also be seen as some kind of “factory” that transforms the free men on the west coast of Africa into a commodity called “slaves”. Slave ships are a complex technical system dedicated to long-distance human transport, without any consideration of the comfort and safety of the transport objects. Since its purpose is not to kill the “goods” being transported (although this is undoubtedly an integral part of the process), I count the casualties they cause as “accidents”. Research estimates that about 15 percent of the 10 million blacks leaving The West Coast of Africa died in transit, equivalent to 1.5 million. But the real death toll may be much higher.
Then there are the dams. Although the dam-induced disasters may seem less widely known, accidents are not uncommon and have widespread damage to the surrounding environment. The dam’s use dates back to ancient times and has caused serious casualties over thousands of years. In modern times, a dam in Pennsylvania has had an accident that killed more than 2,000 people. A dam accident in British India in 1917 also killed thousands of people. There have also been several incidents of similar size. My guess is that as the side effects of climate change intensify, mass migrations increase, and infrastructure shortages, more dam accidents may occur in the near future and more people will die as a result.
Professor of History, Mississippi State University, focusing on technical history and more
I think it’s a technology related to human exploration. It is estimated that the number of Native Americans has decreased by 80 to 95 per cent since the discovery of the New World by Europeans. The deadly diseases brought to the Americas by Europeans include measles, smallpox, and typhus.
In our view, measles is not a dangerous disease, but it is enough to destroy an unprotected community. It’s like a new crown virus, but without a hospital, no ventilator, no medicine to help you, you have to get through it on your own.
It was about 150 years before the people of the Old World anticipated the consequences. At that time, people mostly regarded the disease as a local phenomenon, either because some substances in the body lost their balance or were sucked into dirty air.
When the Europeans returned to Europe, they brought back some of the diseases of the new world. When they went to Africa to sell slaves, they brought the diseases of the old and the new world sourcing it all over. It ended up killing hundreds of millions of people.
Associate Professor of History, University of Rhode Island, study focusing on labor and environmental history in the United States
I don’t know if there were more people killed in a train accident than a car, but the train did cause a lot of casualties in the 19th century. Railway workers and passengers are at great risk in dealing with trains. For decades, American trains were far more dangerous than in Europe. The death rate for railway workers is frighteningly high, and the derailments have resulted in the deaths of many workers and passengers. Rail companies, courts and politicians have taken a pathetic approach to these accidents. When America’s rail network took shape, people were killed by trains as they crossed the tracks.
Not only that, but trains often cause death accidents in cities. Railtracks are dense in big cities, and railway companies do not properly maintain them to ensure safe passage. Often people get stuck on the tracks and then hit by a train. In addition, the train has brought a lot of smoke and noise to the city, seriously reducing the quality of life of urban residents. The insatiable insatiable ness of the railway industry also had a major impact on the economy, leading to the Great Depressions of 1873 and 1893, which devastated the livelihoods of the people at the bottom.
By the 20th century, the safety of railway traffic had been greatly improved. However, due to the railway company’s disregard for people’s lives and safety, accidental deaths still occur frequently.
Associate Professor of History, University of Illinois, University of Technology
To say that technology accidentally kills the most people, such technologies should have been around for a long time and have made such a great contribution to industrial expansion, so that their negative effects have been ignored or even deliberately hidden.
Eli Whitney invented the mill in 1794. In the 19th century, the machine was widely used in the United States, making the cleaning and preparation of raw cotton faster and more efficient, and thus made the cotton growing industry more profitable.
Encouraged by this, more and more white cotton growers began to expand their production scale, so the invention of the mill further consolidated slavery. Before that, America’s slavery was not as big as it should have been. From 1790 onwards, until 1808, when the “import” of black slaves was banned, the southern United States “imported” more than 80,000 slaves. Between 1790 and 1850, the number of American slaves grew from 700,000 to more than 3 million. By the time of the Civil War, about one-third of the people in the southern United States were black slaves.
By the middle of the 19th century, most of the world’s cotton was produced in the United States. Since 1800, cotton production in the United States has doubled every decade. Some say that the U.S. economy is growing on the back of the, and what they say is that industries like cotton, and the personal and national wealth that has accumulated at the expense of the lives of black slaves.
Without the mill, slavery might not have expanded on a large scale, but would soon be abolished. By adding the number of slaves who died on the road to slavery and the number of slaves who died in the United States, the technology would be enough to top the list of “the most murderous technologies”, not to mention the misery and suffering of slavery and the denial of the civil rights of their descendants.
Today, we can still see clearly the impact of this history of economic technology on black Americans. In the 18th and 19th centuries, white american slave owners used technology to fuel discrimination, suffering, and death against blacks. Now, with the addition of specific technologies, similar scenarios are playing out again.
So I think this is a very important piece of technical history that must be kept in mind. Because of this history, technology is often influenced by the context in which it is used. If a technology could further consolidate the existing economic and social structure, it would further strengthen racial discrimination in the context of racial discrimination. If technicalists simply want to solve problems through technology, they will ignore the context in which technology is used and the role that technology plays in this context.
Therefore, science, technology, engineering and mathematics practitioners must learn history and understand history. Ignoring the broad eras of society, the narrow technological “progress” may have serious consequences inadvertently, which undoubtedly runs counter to the true “progress”.