The Transition from Machine to Technology

My discovery of an interesting shift in the use of the words “machine” and “technology” started with a search that yielded much more predictable results. Originally, I used Ngram to analyze the occurrence of the words “computer” and “machine,” the latter of which declined in use while the former increased. Though the notable increase in the use of the word “computer” and its surpassing of “machine” around 1970 is understandable and expected given the initial advancements in computer invention at that time, the same cannot be said for “technology” versus “machine.”

The computer is a specific technology, or machine, far less abstract in its reference than “technology.” Indeed, technology refers more broadly to tools in general that provide a better means to an end. Though modern use of the word associates it more readily with digital tools, its definition is widely applicable: “machinery and equipment developed from the application of scientific knowledge.” Hence, the relatively recent surge in the use of this word seems strange, as it does not simply refer to modern machinery, but to machinery as a whole.

The fact is, however, that “technology” meant something very different until the 19th century. ¬†According to the OED, “technology” in previous centuries referred to “the systematic treatment of grammar,” and “a discourse or treatise on an art or arts.” Only in the late 18th century did it begin to refer to “the branch of knowledge dealing with the mechanical arts and applied sciences” and “the application of such knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry, manufacturing, etc.”

But this still leaves the question of why the use of the word “technology” correlates so strongly with “computer” unanswered. In my research on the etymology of the word on the OED, I still came up short, as for the most part no changes occurred in the explicit definition of “technology” after the 19th century. I can only speculate that the word simply acted as a convenient one to refer to recent digital advancements. Perhaps linguistically technology seemed to best define the computer. We are also members of an increasingly technology-centered society, so it follows that the use of the word “technology” increased.

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