A history of the development of the finite element method is presented. The practical application of the method was delayed many years until some key advances in computing technology, namely adequate computer power (the IBM 704) and the FORTRAN compiler, became available. Some major conceptual breakthroughs contributing to significant advances are described. Countering these breakthroughs, constrictive thinking also occurred, at time making problem solving more difficult than necessary. The interaction of breakthroughs, constrictive thinking and technology is discussed.