In the 1940s, Joseph Needham, a British academic, began cataloging China's achievements in science and technology in an effort to understand why they were inferior to the West's. In his 40 years of study, he found that even though China may have seemed behind in such achievements at the moment, it had led the world in science a millennium before. He concluded that Confucianism and Taoism made a Chinese scientific revolution less likely because they allowed for only slow, incremental innovation, rather than overnight breakthroughs. Still, he recognized that this was only a partial explanation.
Although Needham failed to resolve this great mystery, he made it impossible for other historians to continue to ignore questions about why some societies pull ahead and some fall behind. At a time when most Western, and even many non-Western, intellectuals believed in the intrinsic superiority of the West, Needham showed that both China's apparent shortcomings and the prevailing Western supremacy needed a historical explanation. His agenda became known as "the Needham question."