Friday, January 13, 2012

Technology in the New World

Although we are inclined to think of iPhones, iPods, and laptops when we hear the word 'technology', working with iron and copper, using a printing press, making gun powder, or knowing how to turn wood into paper are equally important skills, and were central to the decades just before and after the United States declared its independence. Thomas Sowell writes:
Most of the early German immigrants had none of the highly developed scientific, technical, or intellectual skills associated with German achievements in the vanguard of Western civilization. What they did have were the discipline, thoroughness, and perseverance that made such achievements possible. They were renowned as "the nation's best dirt farmers." The highly successful German farmers were paralleled by the achievements by German skilled craftsmen in colonial America. Glassmaking was - and is - a skill associated with German Americans. The first papermill was also set up by a German. The first Bible published in America was printed by a German, in the German language.
The papermill was built in 1690 by William Rittenhouse, who had changed his named from Wilhelm Rittenhaus when he came to America. The German families who settled in Pennsylvania explained to their neighbors that they were 'Deutsch' - the German word for 'German'. But the local population misunderstood, and began to call them 'Dutch' - hence the phrase, still used today: "Pennsylvania Dutch".
The Pennsylvania Dutch were very un-German in two important respects: they were pacifists and distrusters of government. As Palatines, they were descendants of people from a province that had suffered especially severe and repeated devastations by contending armies during the Thirty Years' War. They were also refugees from autocratic tyranny and religious persecutions. Moreover, the religious freedom of Pennsylvania - rare even in America at that time - had disproportionate attraction to pious and pacific religious sects. Germans of that era took little or no interest in government or politics.
The Germans in Pennsylvania contributed to several key ingredients in America's political development: they distrusted governments, they strongly preferred peace to war, and they saw a connection between freedom of religion and faith's ability to empower people.