The years between 1450 and 1699 were a time of worldwide upheaval and change, of discovery and rediscovery, of exploration and invention. During this period the boundaries of man's physical world expanded, intellectual horizons broadened almost beyond belief, and a technological explosion put into motion an ongoing wave of learning, advancement, and innovation that has continued, albeit fitfully and chaotically at times, to this very day.
During these two and a half centuries, science itself, particularly in the West, underwent a dramatic evolution, becoming evermore central to human endeavor, and expanding its scope to encompass a more accurate view of the world and the universe in which it is located. The age-old belief that both man and the earth were the center of the universe crumbled, though not without resistance, as scientists employed new tools and techniques to explore the skies above and the interior of the human body. Moving virtually hand in hand with science were advances in mathematics, which gave scientists new tools to measure and calculate the forces that shape the world.
Technology, the application of science to practical ends, made greater progress during these centuries than during all the preceding centuries of human existence. Key to it all was the development of the printing press, which provided near-universal access to learning. Knowledge had been made available to everyone who could read, and the effectiveness of printing for capturing and disseminating information insured that it would continue to spread throughout the world.
The spread of learning proved a great threat to religious and political power, and much effort was expended to prohibit "improper" investigations or speculations. The effort proved fruit-less—the march of science against ignorance could not be stopped, and the social upheavals that accompanied scientific and technological advance would transform society at every level. While theoretical science altered fundamental beliefs, technological advances brought a higher standard of living, advances in medicine, progress in hygiene and creature comfort, and an array of new products and capabilities. As always, technological advances were also applied to warfare, often with devastating effectiveness.
In short, this period encompassed one of the great shifts in human perspective, the Scientific Revolution, and laid most of the groundwork for another major change, the Industrial Revolution of the 1700s and 1800s.
The Renaissance Expands
The Renaissance, that stunning period of rebirth and renewal that began roughly around 1400, gathered force in the latter half of the fifteenth century. What had been a slow climb out of the Dark Ages 500 years before now became a race toward enlightenment, and the acquisition of knowledge became one of the great undertakings of mankind. Scientists, who had previously worked independently, or for patrons who sought to control their knowledge, began to work cooperatively in the first suggestions of scientific societies, the initial impulses toward a community of science that transcended national boundaries.
The ability of explorers—and increasingly traders and settlers—to transcend those borders in the centuries before 1450 proved one of the great spurs to scientific, technical, and cultural advance. During the twelfth century both Chinese and Europeans used their knowledge of magnetism to produce the first crude compasses; later incarnations would make possible the voyages of exploration to the unknown. The Chinese were the first to invent gunpowder, which increased the capacity of nations make war on one another, lifting combat to previously unimaginable levels of destructiveness.
Pure knowledge traveled from nation to nation as well during those years between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance. Perhaps most significant bit of knowledge to make the journey was the use of numerals, which Europeans acquired from Arabs, who had borrowed them from Hindu mathematicians. Knowledge traveled through time as well: As the Dark Ages receded, scholars began to rediscover the great works of ancient scholars, scientists, and historians, and translated them for the modern world.
By 1450, especially in Europe, the recreation of the past, the expansion of borders in the present, the rise of the scientific method, and the roots of higher mathematics came together, lighting a fuse that ignited a period of ferocious progress unlike anything that had gone before.
The Greatest Invention
Knowledge that cannot be shared is almost meaningless. Disseminating information in an age of handwritten manuscripts, however, was laborious. In 1450 Johann Gutenberg (c. 1398-1468) changed the world forever when he invented movable type. Gutenberg's printing press enabled the rapid duplication of pages of text (and numbers and symbols). No longer would knowledge be restricted to those who had access to rare, hand-copied manuscripts. Books could now be mass-produced and mass-distributed. Knowledge could travel wherever people went.
Gutenberg's revolution was immediate and overwhelming. In 1454 he printed 300 copies of the Bible (an edition many still consider the most beautiful book ever published). By the end of the century the number of books available had exploded, and the price had plummeted. This technological revolution was also an educational revolution, so that as the number of books increased, so did the number of people able to read them. Inexpensive, widely available books were the key to progress in the next two centuries, and they continue to affect the world even in our modern, electronic age. Five and a half centuries after the debut of movable type, Gutenberg's invention can still be called the most influential in all of history.
The Greatest Discovery
From the very beginnings of human history, the night skies exerted a phenomenal influence. Myths and legends grew up about the stars, and central among them was the concept that man and the Earth were the center of the universe. That changed in 1543, barely a hundred years after Gutenberg, when Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) cast aside thousands of years of human centrality. The Earth revolved around the Sun, Copernicus said. Many did not want to hear him. One of his supporters, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), was forced by the Catholic Church to recant the Copernican view despite evidence of its accuracy.
It was the nature of observational astronomy, however, that while such recantations served political and social ends, they could not withstand the steady accretion of proof. For this is the essence of the Scientific Revolution: evidence, observation, and experiment produce verifiable results that, even if they conflict with long-held articles of faith, are demonstrably true. Copernicus set in motion the greatest of all revolutions, the shift from acceptance based on faith and tradition, to acceptance based on objective, rational proof.
The workings of the universe themselves rapidly became the focus of much scientific effort. Galileo himself applied the scientific method—observation, experimentation, analysis, verification—to the workings of gravity. (The Scientific Method itself would not be codified until 1620, by English philosopher Francis Bacon [1561-1626].) Astronomers throughout the world began using new and improved tools—telescopes (invented in 1698) equipped with lenses that were themselves the product of improvements and refinements in glassmaking—to discover much of the richness of our solar system. Galileo found moons orbiting Jupiter and explored the vast starfield of the Milky Way. Astronomers including Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) married observational astronomy to higher mathematics and began determining the nature of planetary orbits. The universe itself had been opened to our explorations.
Realm of Numbers
The universe of numbers likewise expanded during this period. If observation is the essence of science, then mathematics is its heart. Mathematical proofs of observed phenomena became vital to scientific consensus—agreement that experimental or observational results were accurate. For mathematics to approach the new complexities that observers reported, however, new methods were needed, beginning with the great effort to develop equations that could solve problems in which some values are unknown or variable.
Virtually all of modern mathematics rests upon advances made during the period between 1440 and 1699. After a period in which ancient mathematics were consolidated, an explosion of knowledge continued almost unabated for more than a century. Negative numbers were introduced in 1545, and trigonometric tables just six years later. Decimal fractions arrived in 1586 as a result of the work of Dutch mathematician Simon Stevin (1548-1620). By 1591 algebraic symbols were being introduced. In 1614 logarithms simplified the calculations of complex numbers; eight years later lograrithmic tables were built into a mechanical device called a slide rule, an early precursor of the calculator and computer. The first mechanical adding machine was built by French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) in 1642.
Mathematics's analytical power took a large leap forward in 1637 with the development of analytic geometry, which married algebra to geometry. This development, in turn, led to the greatest of all mathematical advances, the simultaneous development by Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) of calculus in the late 1660s. The true beginning of modern higher mathematics, calculus proved a supple tool for constantly varying elements, such as the positions of bodies in motion. Calculus also proved essential to approaching questions of planetary orbits and gravity over distance.
Matters of Gravity
The relationship between astronomy and mathematics was especially apparent in the many scientific studies of gravity and bodies in motion. Galileo himself applied his observations of gravity to the workings of the pendulum, and in 1581 began to measure the time it took a pendulum to complete its arc. (Decades later, further pendulum experiments would result in dramatic advances in timekeeping and the first accurate clocks—themselves among the most revolutionary of all inventions.)
More directly related to gravity itself were Galileo's famous experiments with falling and rolling objects, experiments that established the constant attraction of gravitational force. In 1657 English physicist Robert Hooke (1635-1703) conducted similar experiments, performing some of them in vacuum and proving that, without air resistance to affect the results, all bodies fall at the same rate. From these experiments and others came English mathematician John Wallis's (1616-1703) 1668 revelation of the law of conservation of momentum: momentum can neither be created nor destroyed.
By 1687 Newton's studies of gravity and bodies in motion had produced his three laws of motion, defining the rules that govern inertia, force as the product of mass and acceleration, and the nature of actions and equal and opposite reactions.
Modern physics was born.
The Universe Within
Even as scores of scientists and scholars cast their interests outward to the larger universe, others looked inward, to the worlds within our bodies. In 1543 (the same year Copernicus upset notions of the universe) Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) radically revised and improved human knowledge of human anatomy. Two years later the French barber Ambroise Paré (1510-1590) published an account of new surgical methods, including tying off rather than cauterizing (burning) severed arteries to stop them from bleeding, and other improvements that would alter the face of medical care.
In 1590 the infinitesimally small became visible when the first microscope was invented. In 1665 Robert Hooke revealed that he had found tiny chambers in a piece of cork examined under a microscope. He called these self-contained chambers "cells." In 1628 English physician William Harvey (1578-1657) explored the nature of the circulatory system in an influential book, Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (An Anatomical Exercise Concerning the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals). By 1658 corpuscles had been discovered, and capillaries were identified just two years later. In 1668 Italian physician Francesco Redi (1626-1697) disproved long-held beliefs about spontaneous generation—the ability of life to rise from nonliving matter.
Dutch scientist Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) made perhaps the most startling discovery of all when he used the microscope to reveal the existence of protozoans, which he called animalcules. He also used his microscope to view different types of bacteria, although he did not recognize their importance. His discoveries launched a campaign of microscopic exploration that continues today.
The Chemical World
Chemistry, the combination of elements to form new materials, likewise came of age during this time. Irish physicist and chemist Robert Boyle (1627-1691) rejected the superstitions and half-truths of ancient science, arguing that the four Aristotelian elements or earth, air, fire, and water could not be the building blocks of the physical world. He proposed instead that all matter was made up of "primary particles," which could combine to form compounds, which he called "corpuscles." This systematic approach eventually led to the discovery of chemical elements.
Throughout this period, advances were made in identifying and understanding the different forms elements could take, and the different uses to which those forms could be put. As early as 1592 the fact that some materials expand or contract with temperature changes was used to create primitive thermometers. By 1624 experimentation showed how materials could change from liquids to gases. In 1643 the first barometer was developed, leading to further experiments with air pressure. Better under-standing of differences in pressure and the nature of gases led the development of air pumps in the mid-1600s.
Air pumps made vacuum experiments possible, and they, coupled with science's increased understanding of liquids and gases, particularly steam, led by 1698 to the development of the first water pumps. These would prove to be the key invention that led to the Industrial Revolution of the next century.
Exploring and Expanding
Even as scholars explored the scientific world, others explored the physical world. By the end of the fifteenth century Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) had traveled from Europe to the New World, Vasco da Gama (c. 1460-1524) had sailed from Lisbon around the Cape of Good Hope to India, and Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) had begun mapping the coast of South America. By 1513 Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519) had crossed Panama and found the Pacific Ocean, and Juan Ponce de Léon (1460-1521) had begun the settlement of Florida. At roughly the same time a Portuguese ship reached China and established an outpost there. By 1519 Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) had launched his brutal conquest of Mexico.
In 1519 the greatest of all voyages was undertaken when Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480-1521) undertook a the first circumnavigation of the world, taking five ships and 270 men with him. Although Magellan was killed in the Philippines, four of the ships were lost, and only 17 men returned to Spain in 1522, the voyage was undeniably historic. Never again would geographical barriers limit human expansion. The voyage also confirmed the ancient Greek Eratosthones's calculation of Earth's circumference as 25,000 miles (40,234 km).
Exploration was followed by settlement. Europeans eventually colonized the New World and set in motion a cycle of trade and further exploration that would lead over the next two centuries to the emergence of North America as the richest land on the planet. The explorers, traders, merchants, and settlers brought books with them—knowledge every bit as valuable a cargo as people or materials. The Scientific Revolution, like those who engendered it, knew no boundaries.
The Modern Age Begins
No brief survey can hope to encompass all the scientific, technological, and social progress that occurred between 1450 and 1699. The Scientific Revolution gave birth to an unparalleled expansion of technological capability, which in turn elevated the lives of all. Machines enabled more work to be done, and the results of that work were distributed—slowly, and against much social resistance—to more and more people. The arts were likewise affected, with great paintings, works of music, and above all drama reflecting our new understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe.
Hardship accompanied advance as ignorance, slavery, and warfare continued. But they were also opposed: The Scientific Revolution deposed ancient ignorance and superstition and replaced them with reason, giving rise to new schools of thought, a heightened understanding of humanity's place in the universe, and the importance of the individual within humanity.
Newton himself, acknowledging the scholars who had come before him, said "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." It is no overstatement to say that the century and a half between 1450 and 1699 were an age of giants—in the sciences, in the technologies, and indeed in all of human endeavor.