A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 16, 2020

Which Tech Innovation In History Has Killed the Most People (Accidentally)?

We have four contenders: the ocean-going vessel, because of the way it helped spread disease, slavery, etc; the combustion engine for accidents, air pollution, sedentary lifestyles; food processing machines which have contributed to obesity and undernourishment; and air conditioning, which has also contributed to sedentary lifestyles - and in unhealthy climates.

They are all worthy candidates. Which is your favorite? JL

Daniel Kolitz reports in Gizmodo:

If we measure lethality by the fraction of the world’s population killed, the deadliest technology was the ocean-going vessel. After 1492, the indigenous population of America declined by about 50 million as Europeans brought smallpox and measles. But for total numbers killed, the combustion engine surpasses. Motor vehicle crashes alone have killed  70 to 90 million people over the last century. The machines that transform staple foods into processed goods have contributed to a rise in cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Sitting is killing us. Air conditioning is the main culprit
Show me a museum of important historical inventors and I will show you a gallery of deluded mass murderers. I’m not talking about machine gun manufacturers or nuclear scientists—those people, at least, have some sense of what they’re up to. I’m talking about the folks behind the printing press, the automobile, various kinds of boat technology. These people tried to improve the world, and succeeded, but also indirectly killed millions of people. That, at least, is the lesson of this week’s Giz Asks, in which a number of historians wrestle with the question of which technological innovation has accidentally killed the most people.

Peter Norton

Associate Professor, Science, Technology and Society, University of Virginia
In 1963, Tiny Helwig of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company said “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” But with the help of guns and other technology, people kill in far greater numbers than they otherwise could.
If we measure lethality by the fraction of the world’s population killed, the deadliest technology was the ocean-going vessel, made possible by innovations in ship design and by navigational instruments such as the compass and the cross staff. Like guns, ships didn’t kill by themselves; it took irrational ambitions, such as extravagant wealth accumulation, to give them deadly effect. In the century after 1492, the indigenous population of America declined by about 50 million as Europeans brought diseases such as smallpox and measles to the Americas.
But for total numbers killed, the combustion engine—any technology that turns fire into work—surpasses even this the ocean-going vessel’s horrific record. Toys that turned heat into action date to ancient times, but the transformative moment came in 1712, when England’s Thomas Newcomen designed an engine that used fire to create a vacuum, which in turn moved a piston in a cylinder big enough for a grown person to climb into. The whole machine occupied a freestanding building. It burned tremendous quantities of coal in return for a little work. But at the pithead of a coal mine, fuel was cheap, and by draining the mine of floodwater, it earned its keep.
Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, Newcomen released powers greater than he could imagine. His machine’s hardly recognizable descendent is the gasoline engine in a car. The first is an external combustion steam engine burning coal; the other is an internal combustion engine burning gasoline. But essentially they are the same technology: both apply combustion to drive a piston and thereby convert the stored chemical energy in a fossil fuel into useful work.
Until the eighteenth century all work came from muscle (whether from humans or from other animals), wind, or falling water. Since Newcomen’s 1712 invention of the first practical fuel-burning engine, a growing share has come from the combustion of fossil fuels. This machine relieved humans of toil and saved countless lives, for example, through better food and water distribution, better sewage disposal, and better access to medical care—all prodigious life savers. But in combination with human greed, the combustion engine also caused mass death. Applied to English textile mills, it drove insatiable demands for fiber, for colonies to supply the fiber in the form of cotton, and for slave labor to produce the cotton. The Atlantic slave trade preceded the combustion engine, but the engine made slavery far more lucrative.
The engine also enriched a new industrial aristocracy. Lacking hereditary titles, they proved their status through displays of wealth. One way was to serve tea sweetened with sugar—from slave labor. The slave trade killed many millions, and slave labor killed many millions more. Sugar plantations were the deadliest forced labor camps of the Americas. In combination with greed, racism, and indifference, a machine devised as a labor saver worked millions of people to death.
Pandemics precede the combustion engine, but steamships helped propagate the first global pandemic. Cholera, once confined to South Asia, spread worldwide in the 1820s and 1830s. Steamships accelerated the disease’s spread and extended its reach. Many of the cities that cholera reached were far denser than they could have been without combustion engines. Engines concentrated work, powering large factories; as locomotives, engines extended foodsheds enough to support cities of millions. Combustion engines made cities crowded; in crowded cities, disease spread quickly. Above all, waterborne diseases, especially cholera and typhoid fever, ravaged dense cities because sewage contaminated drinking water supplies. Combustion engines were responsible for the cure as well as the disease: their power made vast sewer and waterworks possible.
Motor vehicle crashes alone have killed about 70 to 90 million people over the last century; each year another 1.3 million die this way. People who live near busy traffic arteries are exposed to enough vehicle emissions to shorten their lives. In car-dependent areas, particularly in the U.S., sedentary living among people who have no good alternatives to driving contributes substantially to heart disease (the number-one cause of death in the U.S.), and also to life-shortening obesity and type 2 diabetes.
The combustion engine’s worst ravages may be yet to come. Invented to raise water, the engine is now performing this task on a global scale. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we don’t know how to stop it. Through their CO2 emissions, combustion engines are raising sea levels. They are changing the climate in ways that threaten livelihoods, food and water supplies, and the inhabitability of areas now crowded with millions of people. We find ourselves dependent on a machine that threatens to kill us. To manage this threat will require all the creativity we applied to develop it.

Jenny Leigh Smith

Associate Professor, History, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, whose research focuses on the history of food and food technology, among other things
The top three global killers in the past 40 years have been heart disease, cancer. and respiratory disease. Have there been technological inventions that have unintentionally increased these kinds of deaths? Two culprits leap to mind.The wide variety of machines and chemicals that transform staple foods into more delicious but significantly less nourishing processed goods have contributed to a rise in deadly diseases of affluence, including cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Pinning down a cause of death in people with chronic diseases is not as clear as it is with a fatal car crash, but doctors and epidemiologists are increasingly able to identify modern food choices as major contributors to poor health and increased morbidity. Expanding waistlines and insulin prescriptions are the visible side effects of a diet high in processed foods, but in fact what food processing technologies remove—fiber, micronutrients, “healthy” bacteria—is just as damaging. Polishing, flash frying and extruding the good stuff out of food has increased cancer rates, heightened immune responses and aggravated chronic diseases in ways that we are just beginning to understand.My vote for a second accidentally lethal technology is air conditioning. Climate control makes our modern way of life possible, but who is being controlled by what? Without A/C, America’s booming sunbelt would not exist, to say nothing of global financial hubs like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Dubai. Modern offices are designed around a constant temperate indoor climate, as are shopping centers. And here is where being comfortable seems like it might also be a little bit fatal. In the same way that food processing removes vitamins, roughage and bitterness, leaving only under-nourishing approximations of food, air conditioning removes the need and desire to be outside, to shift locations, to rest in the shade or exercise in the cool of the evening. Scientists have only very recently discovered that sitting is killing us. The technologies that keep us tethered our desks are worth interrogating. Air conditioning is a fair contender for the main culprit. By encouraging certain lifestyles—indoor work, information economies, shopping as a form of leisure, and a dependency on networked gadgets that work best in cool, dry environments—we humans have become conditioned to work year-round and at all hours. We sit, we stare at screens, produce knowledge and add value, pausing only momentarily to put on a sweater to guard against the eternal chill of the office thermostat.


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