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Global Technology

Everyday Technology in Monsoon Asia, 1880-1960

The special issue of Modern Asian Studies on 'Everyday Technology in South and Southeast Asia', is now available. See vol. 46: part 1, January 2012.

This three-year project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, was directed by David Arnold, based in the Centre for Global History and Culture at the University of Warwick, and ran from 2008-10. The project was greatly aided by the research of Mr Erich DeWald as a researcher working on colonial Vietnam and by an international conference held at Warwick in March 2010. The work of the principal investigator, David Arnold, has concentrated on developments in India and has focussed on four specific examples of ‘everyday technology’ – sewing machines, bicycles, typewriters and rice mills. Each of these became, within its own sphere of use, an important and widely disseminated technological good and a site of wider economic, social and cultural activity.

Much of the discussion of technology in colonial and post-colonial Asia has focussed on ‘big technologies’ – railways, steamships, irrigation and dam construction – and emphasized a process of technology transfer and diffusion from the West into Asian societies. Many everyday changes in technology, affecting the lives of the mass of the population, have been ignored. The research project was designed to show how new technologies rapidly established themselves in South and Southeast Asia from the 1880s onwards.

Sewing machines helped transform the work of ‘traditional’ tailors or darzis, but they were also, by the early 20th century, widely used by women for domestic sewing and facilitated changing styles of dress and domestic employment. Rice mills had a comparable effect on the nature of the rice consumed by large numbers of Indians by the 1940s and were, like sewing machines, illustrative of the spread of small machines into Indian villages. Bicycles facilitated urban and rural mobility, and enabled the expansion of small-scale trades and the routine movement of clerks, petty traders, and low-ranking government servants. Typewriters were less ‘everyday’, but they were integral to the creation of the modern office in India as elsewhere. Each of these machines began as a foreign import but rapidly became objects in which Indians traded or which they exchanged, repaired, stole or serviced. By the late 1930s Indian firms were beginning to make their own rice mills and sewing machines. Indigenous production only took off after Indian independence, but the groundwork was laid in earlier decades through experience of using, selling and assembling these goods.

Discussion of these four exemplary technologies equally allows consideration of their social and cultural use. Never a European monopoly, bicycles were adopted by the Indian middle classes as an emblem of their new-found physical freedom and Indian cycle ‘tourists’ set off to travel around India and the world. And yet the use of bicycles was largely denied to Indian women just as, over time, the bicycle became less and less of a status good for Europeans in India. Sewing machines, conversely, were widely used by Indian women (although companies like Singer had originally been sceptical about their use of, or need for, such machines), and one of the principal modes of their dissemination, as with bicycles, was through dowry gifting among the middle classes. Different again was the use of typewriters, partly by male members of India’s traditional scribal communities but also by Anglo-Indian (Eurasian) women, who were more willing than Indian women from ‘respectable’ castes to work in an office. While demonstrating some capacity to change ‘traditional’ values and work practices, the utilization of everyday technologies tended to conform to and reflect race, gender and class divisions within Indian society. At the same time, foreign machines became absorbed into Indian cultural and social life – as their use as dowry gifts demonstrates. There was identification with these goods and their production as part of a patriotic agenda but they also occupied a prominent role in the critique of technological modernity: Gandhi famously endorsed the Singer sewing machine but was critical of many other small-scale technologies (including bicycles and rice mills) as harmful to Indians morally or physically.

One of the issues raised by this project and its findings is particularly germane to the work of the Centre for Global History and Culture at Warwick: how do historians assess the respective importance of the ‘local’ and the ‘global’ as these relate to a major region of the colonial world like India in the 19th and early 20th centuries? Bicycles, sewing machines and typewriters were clearly global goods, made elsewhere for international markets, with globally recognized brand names (like Singer and Remington), and they often using the same sales methods and advertising techniques in countries across the globe. Prestige sometimes attached to such goods precisely because they were of foreign make. But in many ways they did not remain conspicuously foreign, but were localized through a variety of local social and economic usages that endowed them with a different meaning and even purpose from that originally intended by their distant manufacturers. The fact that many of these machines came from the United States (or from Germany or elsewhere) rather than from Britain, the imperial power, raises significant questions about how ‘British’ the ‘British Empire’ in India was the 1920s and 1930s – with American cars, truck, typewriters and movies in wide use or circulation.

It could be argued that imperial identities and attachments were substantially weakened by technological change and evolving consumer practices and that Britain’s prestige (as reflected in the kinds of goods it made and sold) was evidently on the wane. The assault came not just from the swadeshi movement (for India’s economic self-sufficiency) but also from the fashion for, or virtual unavoidability of, American goods. An ‘everyday technology’ approach can serve to demonstrate an important process of localization and nativization which in itself tends to qualify some of the grand narratives of ‘global’ thinking, at work, but it can also demonstrate some of the complexities of late-colonial consumer culture (and the politics of taste and persuasion arising from it) in British India. It also has significance for the early post-colonial era in which in India not only was there a reaction against British imported goods, as a mark of colonial economic dependency, but also an as yet little recognized process of de-Americanization.

Papers presented at the international conference held at Warwick on 19th-20th March 2010, covering several South and Southeast Asian countries, can be found in Modern Asian Studies, vol. 46: part 1, January 2012. Conference papers included:

David Arnold, ‘The Invention of Traffic: Street-Life and Public Discipline in Early Twentieth-Century India'

Mitch Aso, 'Hévéa, latex, and technological change in a Vietnamese province during the interwar years, 1918-1937'

David Biggs, 'Small Machines in the Garden: Modernism Meets Survivalism in the Mekong Delta'

Ai Lin Chua, '"The Modern Magic Carpet": Radio Broadcasting in Inter-War Singapore'

Erich DeWald, 'Taking on the Waves: Radio Broadcasting and the Vietnamese Public in the 1930s'

Tilman Frasch, 'Tropical Coolness: Culture, Comfort and Consumption in Britain's Asian Empire'

Y. Srinivasa Rao, 'Colonialism and Industrial Technology: Rice Milling Technology in Colonial Andhra'

Raquel Reyes, ‘Making Women’s Lives Comfortable: Modernity, consumption and everyday technology in Manila ca. 1880s-1930s’

Shweta Sachdeva Jha, 'Tawa if, Nautch Girls and Photography in Colonial India, 1870s-1920s'

Ajay Ranjan Singh, ‘Horses without tails: Rickshaws, Rickshaw Pulling and the Politics of Progress'

Jean Gelman Taylor, 'Journey to Java and Beyond: The Sewing Machine'

Sharika Thiranagama, 'Technologies of the Future: The Northern Railway in Sri Lanka'

Commentators: Tim Harper (Cambridge); Suzanne Moon (Oklahoma), Sarah Teasley (RCA)

Further work on this project can be seen in the following publications:

David Arnold, ‘Global Goods and Local Usages: The Small World of the Indian Sewing Machine, 1875-1952’, Journal of Global History, 6: 3, 2011, pp. 407-29.

David Arnold and Erich DeWald, ‘Cycles of Empowerment? The Bicycle and Everyday Technology in Colonial India and Vietnam’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 53: 4, 2011, pp. 971-96.

David Arnold, ‘Technology and the New Subalternity’, Cadernos de Estudos Culturais: Subalternidade, 3: 5, 2011, pp. 27-36.

Anyone interested in further details about the project should contact David Arnold at


Indian tailors (darzis) at work in late 19th-century India. Although the tailors appear to be working by ‘traditional’ methods, the machine on the table behind them (in a European bungalow) is an early sewing machine. Photo by permission of the Royal Geographical Society, London.


A newspaper advertisement for BSA, a British bicycle firm in 1946. Bicycles were in short supply in India during the Second World War and for several years after the war British machines sold in large numbers before import duties and the rise of Indian cycle production drastically reduced their market. Despite the advertiser’s image, few adult women rode bicycles in India in the 1940s.