Listen to part of a conversation between a student and the professor of his history of technology class.
Would it be OK to focus on something related to agriculture?
Sure, farming technology is fine, as long as it's premodern.
But this isn't a long paper, so you're gonna need to pick a specific area of premodern agriculture, like, um, irrigation... or food crops of ancient Greece...
I'm actually interested in hydroponics.
[Unsure, without enthusiasm]Hydroponics... growing plants in water instead of soil...
Well, not in pure water-in water that has the proper mix of nutrients.
O-OK, but... is it a premodern technology?
I mean, hydroponics isn't really my specialty, but from the research I've read, we're talking the nineteenth century... maybe the seventeenth century, if you really stretch it.
[Not trying to say “gotcha”]Oh? But the Aztec civilization back in the thirteenth century in... basically where Mexico City is today...
An article I read said the Aztecs were using hydroponics in something they called... I've got the word right here... um...[A bit hesitantly] Chinampas.
Chinampas-the so-called floating gardens...
Exactly! So, yeah, the chinampas... The article said, very clearly, these floating gardens are proof that the Aztecs invented hydroponic farming.
Well, chinampas are artificial islands, built up in shallow lakes-islands made from packed earth and weeds, and, uh, material from the bottom of the lake.
They may have appeared to be floating in the water, but in fact they reach all the way to the bottom of the lake.
So the primary growing medium-what the plants draw nutrients from-is actually soil, not water.
So the article was wrong about that. Too bad. It seemed like a great topic, but I guess...
Wait a minute. Uh, just because chinampas were not technically hydroponic... doesn't mean this couldn't be an appropriate topic for your paper.
Chinampas were still a great premodern technological achievement.
I mean, they enabled the Aztecs to grow plenty of food... in an area without much available farmland.
But I wonder why the author wrote that chinampas were hydroponic?
Well, it's pretty common for writers to generalize-say, use a term like "hydroponics" to describe other types of agriculture.
Personally, I'd never say "hydroponic" except for plants growing in liquid.
The crops on chinampas definitely benefitted from the water surrounding them, [doubt, questioning] but hydroponic?
OK, so I'll go with chinampas, but leave out the "hydroponics" part...
Actually, there's an important lesson here: we should pay attention to what happened in history, but also how historical events are presented.
Why, for example, would writers use a word like "hydroponics" so casually?
I guess 'cuz it's a popular topic people wanna read about?
Or... to help modern-day readers understand something historical, maybe these writers think a familiar frame of reference is needed.
Well, that article was in a popular magazine, not a scholarly journal for historians.
OK, but historians sometimes do the same thing.
So I guess then that all historians might not describe chinampas in quite the same way either.
Good point. Why not look into that too? ... and include it along with your description and analysis.