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Leonardo to the Internet: Technology & Culture from the Renaissance to the Present

by Thomas J. Misa

John Hopkins University Press

Reviewed by Ken Liebeskind

thomas j misa

A book that traces the history of technology from the Renaissance to the modern day has a lot to cover. One thinks of technology as a means to advance human culture and opportunity, but Thomas J. Misa’s  Leonardo to the Internet focuses on the ways it has been used to wage war, from Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of gunpowder weapons to the development of nuclear bombs during World War II.

The book spans from discussions of Leonardo “exploded-view drawings for wheel lock assemblies and a magnificent drawing of workers guiding a huge cannon barrel through the midst of a bustling foundry”, to U.S. Brigadier General Leslie Groves, who spearheaded the uranium enrichment process prior to the development of the nuclear bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima


“The Hiroshima bomb,” Misa’s notes, was “a simple gun-type device code named Little Boy, worked by firing one subcritical mass of uranium-235 into another, creating a single larger critical mass.”.

    Misa also examines poison gas manufacture during World War I and points out that “German soldiers attacked the village of Ypres, in Flanders, opened 6,000 cylinders of chlorine and watched a yellow-green cloud scatter the French defenders.”

    He then quickly moves ahead to the entanglement of the German chemical industry with the Third Reich, focusing on I.G. Farben pointing out that “Farben made synthetic explosives, synthetic fuels and synthetic rubber for the National Socialist war effort. Many have never forgiven its provision to the Nazis of Zyklon B (the death camp gas), its nerve-gas experiments on camp inmates and its use of up to 35,000 slave laborers to build a synthetic rubber complex at Auschwitz.”

    The U.S. was the first to develop nuclear weapons because Germany lagged behind, despite early efforts by German physicists to split the uranium nucleus. “The German effort was hampered by Hitler’s anti-Semitic ravings, which had driven away Germany’s Jewish scientists, among them many of the country’s leading atomic physicists.”.

    The military theme doesn’t stop with 20th century warfare but continues into the computer era, with a discussion of the Internet’s military origins “Many of the important technical milestones – the Rand concept of packet switching (1964), the Navy-funded Alohanet that led to the Ethernet (1970-72), the Defense Department’s ARPANET (1972) and the rapid adoption of internet-working protocols—were exclusively funded or heavily promoted or even outright mandated by the military services,” he writes

   In his discussion of the Internet, Misa chronicles the early period from the 1960s to the mid ‘80s when the military was prominent. to the commercialization of the Internet in the late 1990s when the network was privatized, and the World Wide Web became popular. Misa covers the invention of email, the establishment on domain names and the emergence of an “inter-network” when private ISPs provided the high speed backbones that carried the bulk of long distance traffic.

     Misa returns to a military theme near the end of the book to discuss cyberwarfare, which ranges from Chinese cyberattacks against the U.S. from 2003 to 2005, to the debacle between China and Google that led Google to withdraw from China’s search market in 2010.

    The book includes ten chapters that each cover a different period of history with a different theme, with “The Means of Destruction, 1936-1990” the only one specifically devoted to military matters. But the means of destruction crop up throughout the book, from the Renaissance to the modern day. We also get discussions of moveable type, the printing press, railroads, ship building, mining and smelting technologies and more, in a book that covers technological development over the past 500 years and its impact on Western culture.

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