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An Early History of Tools: A Lesson for Industry

A tool is but the extension of a man's hand, and a machine is but a complex tool. And he that invents a machine augments the power of a man and the well being of mankind. – Henry IV of France

Though humans are not the only species to exclusively use tools, the extent to which we use them and the complexity of the tools we fashion is indeed unique. A look at the history of tools, especially tools used in war, proves that the tools we choose and use can make the difference between success and failure—especially in terms of innovation and growth of human industry.

The human drive to create elaborate and extraordinarily useful 'extensions of the hand' goes back to our prehistory and actually outdates humans – three million years, in fact, before true homo sapiens walked the earth.

Source: techzulu.com 

Source: techzulu.com  

Homo Habilis (and its more familiar and better classified descendants Homo Egaster and Homo Erectus) distinguished itself from contemporary primates in several ways:

  1. He consistently walked upright.
  2. He had mostly abandoned the African forests and jungles in order to pursue much richer hunting opportunities out on the open savannah.
  3. He used tools.

The implements developed by early humanoids were made of the materials at hand – rock, wood, bone, hide, and fiber. Even the most basic instruments took time and effort to develop, involving experimentation and testing to perfect techniques and refine construction methods. Through these instruments, early man could overcome his inherent deficiencies and, operating in coordinated groups, overcome the physical advantages of both prey and competing predators in terms of strength, size and speed. To this day, tools provide these same benefits of staying ahead of the competition.

By working together efficiently and constantly endeavoring to improve the selection, capability and functionality of their tools, humans created a cumulative separation between themselves and the randomness of threats and challenges from the natural world to establish ever greater control over their environment, prospering as a species as a result. Today, tools continue to provide organizations with better and better ways to deal with the vagaries of the business and technical world. 

Of course, not all tools are the same. Some are suited for particular tasks. Some cost more in terms of materials or effort to form them. And, of course, some work better than others. As our own evolution as a species clearly demonstrates, having the right tools for the task at hand makes the difference between survival and extinction, success and failure, victory, and defeat.

Man is also a social animal. Our ability to form bonds with each other and work cooperatively is central to our success. We also have to be equipped to work together, help each other and contribute maximally to the success of the group – we need, in other words, to have the right tools along with the right organization and methods for working together. 

When we talk about tools, organizations and methods (or processes), we often look to examples of struggle where the stakes are highest and the outcomes are frequently the most dramatic and far-reaching – examples such as sporting events or, more frequently, ones of military feats and prowess. An analysis of a few of these from comparing each of the opponents by tools, organization and processes is starkly revealing.

Agincourt

If we are mark'd to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more. – Shakespeare, “Henry V”, Act IV

On Friday October 25, 1415 in a region of northeastern France that is known today as the Pas-De-Calais, a pivotal battle of the Hundred Years War occurred in a rather undistinguished stretch of countryside near the castle of Agincourt. A French army, outnumbering their English opponents roughly 2:1 and, in particular, by more than 5:1 in heavy infantry (what were termed 'knights' or 'men at arms' in those days), charged confidently to finish off Henry V and his exhausted forces. All factors favored the French, who were fighting at home, were well stocked and provisioned, had the best technology and equipment for their heavy knights and above all were highly enthusiastic and eager to defend their home turf.

Source: tripwow.tripadvisor.com

Source: tripwow.tripadvisor.com

The English had just finished the siege of the nearby port town of Harfleur. Their forces had dwindled to 9,000 infantry (5/6 of them lightly armored and equipped archers) from the original 12,000 from disease, hunger, and combat casualties. Short on provisions and caught out in the open, battle was being forced on the English by a French enemy who had chosen both the time and place for the engagement. 

Henry V had been striving to avoid a decisive pitched battle, as even his original full strength force had not been intended for such an endeavor. The objectives of the English king had been to simply reaffirm the old Norman claim over Northern French territories and, concurrently, English claims to the succession of the throne of France. The French, however, had other ideas. 

The field of battle near the castle of Agincourt was rain-soaked and muddy, favoring the English defenders. Dense woodland on both flanks confined the battlefield, preventing the larger French force from encircling the English. To complete the defensive nature of Henry V's deployment, his archers planted deep arrays of stakes to blunt and stall a charge by French knights.

The French massed their heavy infantry in the center, intending to charge the small number of English knights who were also in the center of their own position. Henry positioned his archers on either flank behind their staked approaches to give them some semblance of protection.

Thus, field preparations and the organization of the English helped to ameliorate their weaknesses and mitigate French strengths. What made the greatest difference in the battle, though, was the English long bow, a devastatingly effective weapon that at approximately 200 feet could penetrate the best armor of the day.

There are lessons to be learned from this ancient battle for today's business. Though the French knew about the long bow, they dismissed it as a tool 'not suitable' for knights and gentlemen, underestimating its effectiveness and dismissive of its impact. At the end of the day, after wading through several hundred yards of rather deep mud to reach and engage the English knights while continually peppered at both long and short range with armor piercing arrows, the French army had been rendered combat ineffective through losing 80% of their force as killed, wounded, or captured, whereas the English lost less than one tenth of that number. Having the right tool not only spelled the difference for the English, but turned what should have been a massacre into a crushing victory. Isn't that still true?

Boudicca

Implementation, not strategy, is what usually separates winners from losers in most industries, and generally explains the difference between success and failure. – Bob Sutton, “Strategy is For Amateurs, Logistics Are For Professionals”

The right tools can turn difficult and frustrating tasks into simple ones. However, must one still use them properly to gain full advantage of their functionality. A full 1400 years before Agincourt, the Romans applied this principle to great effect in Southern England. 

Source: livescience.com

Source: livescience.com

In 61 AD, the Roman conquest of Britain was still a recent memory in the minds of the native population and had only managed to take and hold the southern reaches of the island. A string of Roman abuses pushed simmering resentment into open revolt, with Boudicca, queen of the Iceni, leading her tribe and the allied Trinovantes in armed rebellion. Moving swiftly and decisively, Boudicca led tribal warriors to raze Camulodunum (Colchester) and Londinium (London), burning the cities to the ground and slaughtering their inhabitants. 

Gaius Suetonius Paulius, the Roman Governor of Britain, pulled together most of two Legions along with a detachment of auxiliaries, in total numbering perhaps 10,000 men. Boudicca had collected a huge force – at least 100,000 warriors, though ancient sources suggest there may have been as many as twice that number.

There was an enormous qualitative difference between the armies. The tribesmen, hale and hearty as they must certainly have been as men accustomed to farming, hunting and the hardships of a life spent outdoors, were individualistic and untrained in soldiering. The organization of the force as well was so rough as to constitute not an army so much as a horde.

The Romans, on the other hand, trained their soldiers to a level that even the elite formations of today's modern armies could scarcely match. Yet even with their physical prowess and excellent equipment, a Roman legionnaire could hardly expect to be a match for 10 or more indifferently armed but physically fit barbarians. The real difference between the tribal hordes and the Legions was in the way legionnaires were organized. Their capabilities as individual killing machines were magnified by the operational doctrine of the Legion, whereby troopers were very efficiently rotated to and from the front line during battle so that they always went into the attack with a continually refreshed and energized vanguard.

The Romans also had supporting units such as cavalry, javelin-throwing skirmishers and field artillery. Each had their own roles to serve, the most important being that they free legionary infantrymen to do what they did best – close with the enemy and cut them down.

Suetonius chose his battlefield in southeastern England very carefully. His two legions were arranged in a line between the ramparts of a draw that emptied out into a wide-open grassy field. At the opposite end of the draw to the Roman rear was a forest. Thus, the Roman formation was well protected on three sides. 

Grossly overconfident from the sheer size of their force and drunk with success over the destruction of two cities, Boudicca and her mob launched themselves headlong into what can only be described as a Roman meat grinder. As the leading edge of the British assault was destroyed, the rest faltered.

The legion advanced in good order to maintain pressure. As the legionary force pushed out into the plain, a small roman cavalry contingent found enough room to deploy to both flanks and use their lances to further herd the tumultuous and increasingly panicky mob. The barbarians then gave ground and eventually broke into headlong flight. A disciplined and well-conditioned Roman force pursued, with the final tally adding up to 70,000 to 80,000 barbarians slaughtered by Suetonius and his legions. Boudicca apparently committed suicide shortly afterwards, marking the end of the rebellion. The lesson: the right tool and the wrong strategy still can lead to failure.

Next time, we'll look at the evolution of modern tools. In the meantime, what lessons have you taken from history? Let us know in the comments section below.

EBN blogger Peter Gasperini co-authored this article. 

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