Monday, March 05, 2012

A Thought on the Impact of Technological Change

The Washington Post is publishing a series of articles marking the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War. Yesterday the paper included an article on the technological advances that marked that war. The mini ball made rifles much easier to load, and rifling made infantry weapons much more accurate, deadly at much longer distances. Repeating rifles were used by Union troops later in the war, allowing much more rapid fire. Gatling guns were introduced. Iron clad warships were introduced.

Logistics were transformed by the railroad and telegraph. Perhaps more important, especially in the north, the manufacturing base had improved and was able to produce more material to support larger forces in the field.

Army officers had been trained in strategy and tactics that were current in the Napoleonic wars. In those wars the infantry used muskets inaccurate at more than 50 yards, and infantry tactics involved getting many troops with their inaccurate weapons close enough to the enemy to level a deadly fire. Trying to use those tactics against entrenched troops armed with repeating rifles and Gatling guns supported by artillery was deadly to the attacking force. Similarly, the iron clad warships easily destroyed wooden warships.

As the war progressed, siege warfare largely replaced the open battlefield as strategy and tactics caught up with the new technology. However, other nations did not always learn the lessons of the American Civil War and there were massive losses as late as the First World War when troops were sent to charge machine guns and artillery.

The impact of strategy and tactics not keeping up with technology is fearfully evident in warfare, but I suspect that similarly profound impacts are found all over society. The Industrial Revolution industrialized killing in war, but other technological revolutions must introduce other kinds of impacts. As we now see cyber warfare, we can see other impacts of the information revolution in commerce, management and other fields.

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