Overview: Technology and Invention 1450-1699

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Overview: Technology and Invention 1450-1699


The age of humanism that followed the Medieval era built upon a revolution in science that celebrated human curiosity and its use of rational inquiry. This embrace of human discovery also affected technology with a rational approach to the material world and a growing interest in transforming that world through individual action. With the advent of mechanical printing and the resulting development of a literate technology, technological change accelerated and technological diffusion widened. As a result, the Western world associated science and technology with progress, incorporating them into the larger framework of a humanist perspective so characteristic of the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment.

Mechanized Printing

More than any other development of this era, mechanized printing transformed the nature of technology. Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1398-1468) used his background as a metallurgist to devise a means of printing with interchangeable, standardized metal type. He achieved this process of using movable type by casting various letters in the same mold; each piece of type was identical in size and shape to every other piece, which gave him complete interchangeability. His type mold, not the printing press itself, was the critical part of this revolutionary means of printing. The result was the first information revolution with an explosion of accessible knowledge available to a wide audience. Mechanized printing made the production of books less expensive, allowed for the wide dissemination of knowledge, greatly enhanced the accuracy of description, and permitted individuals to gain knowledge and to challenge established authority through their own self-learning and exploration.

Less expensive printing fueled the growth of technical literature and created the world of handbook technology. Georg Bauer (also known as Agricola [1494-1555]) published the widely used handbook of metallurgy and mining, De Re Metallica. Vannoccio Biringuccio (1480-c. 1539) focused on the metallurgy of precious metals and the art of casting in his De la pirotechnia. These works, among many others, contained engravings as well as descriptive text so that their readers could replicate various technological methods and machinery. Ready access to the tools and processes of technology through the printed record also stimulated invention and innovation as this knowledge spread throughout the Western world in the new portable form. This age of literate technology spurred so much development that technology for the first time was divided into two categories: military engineering and everything else—civilian or civil engineering.

New Weapons of War

Gunpowder first used in China diffused to the West during the Renaissance with a significant impact on weapons development. New weapons of war such as the cannon, muskets, and pistols became hallmarks of armies as both strategic and tactical methods changed to reflect the use of these new weapons. For example, ship design was modified to include a cannon deck, allowing the ship to play a more active role in military action. In addition, land-based warfare saw the increased use of cannons, first to frighten and later to destroy communities. This new weapon made the typical Medieval walled fortress much more vulnerable because cannon fire easily could permeate those walls. Many Renaissance engineers successfully pursued careers in designing and building new city fortifications using slopped walls, placing cannons throughout the line of defense. The resulting star fort design replaced the high stone walls of the Medieval fortress with lower earthen and brick walls less susceptible to damage by cannon fire. Cannon fire was less likely to destroy an entire wall made of brick or of angled earthen surfaces.

The increased use of gunpowder also transformed the role of governments in encouraging and supporting military technology. The new weapons required skilled metallurgists, manufacturing systems, trained soldiers, and standing armies. Governments, especially those intent on expansionism and increased regional influence, began supporting a military establishment for the maximum exploitation of new weapons and new military activities. A growing partnership between governments and the military establishment made war a more professional activity.

Mechanized Time

In this era, the ways people measured time moved from the use of sun dials and water clocks to mechanical clocks. The regular effects of weights, springs, or a pendulum became a means of measuring time; time keeping moved away from natural rhythms to abstract mechanical intervals established by scientists and inventors. Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) played a key role in developing the pendulum clock, and men such as Jean de Hautefeuille (1647-1724), Peter Henlein (1480-1542), and Robert Hooke (1635-1703) provided techniques for producing portable clocks in the form of watches that used a controlled force released by a spring to measure and display time.

The widespread use of mechanical clocks mirrored a changing attitude toward nature. Instead of seeing the world as an organic or mystical place, those involved in science and technology sought mechanical measures of their world. Based largely on the new scientific attitudes of the time, this analytical, logical, and mechanical approach provided an intellectual foundation for the rationalized technology that was essential for the industrial age. This mechanical mindset also encouraged people to observe, measure, and analyze various aspects of the world around them. Man, indeed, became the measure and measurer of all things.

Measuring Instruments and Measuring the World

The interest in measurement and the perception of a mechanical world enhanced the development and use of scientific instruments. Devices such as the telescope, the microscope, calculators, the magnetic compass, barometers, gun sights, scales, lenses, and clocks provided a technological underpinning for both scientific inquiry and practical application. Measurement was critical for astronomy, navigation, and surveying; precise observation and description became a hallmark for the world of Renaissance science. For example, Galileo's (1564-1642) use of the telescope allowed him to challenge longstanding astronomical theories and to replace them with explanations based on his personal observations; these new models contributed to the Newtonian revolution in science.

In the world of transportation technology, the bringing together of the compass, the lateen or triangular sail, and the stern-post rudder created a vastly improved sailing ship worthy of transoceanic travel. The results were the voyages of discovery and exploration that flourished in the seventeenth century. With these experiences explorers discovered new flora and fauna, increased the pool of human knowledge, and provided new trade routes that stimulated trade and commerce. As a consequence, the material wealth of Western Europe increased substantially, a happening that fed the materialistic thrust of the era.

Improved measuring instruments and techniques affected technology on land as well as at sea. Canal building on a vast scale attested to the civil engineering skills of Renaissance engineers. In Britain, Hugh Myddleton (c. 1560-1631) created a canal known as the New River, which remains as a means of supplying water to London. In France, Pierre-Paul Riquet de Bonrepos (1604-1680) was instrumental in the construction of the Canal du Midi (Languedoc Canal); this impressive engineering feat had a 500-foot (152-m) tunnel, several aqueducts, and a hundred locks along its 180-mile (290-km) length. The widely traveled and experienced Dutch engineer Simon Stevin (1548-1620) engaged in several projects focusing on canals, drainage, and irrigation projects throughout Western Europe. The surveying instruments and techniques necessary for canal building also played a key role in the design and construction of urban fortifications, another major contribution of Renaissance civil engineers. No less a person than Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) devoted most of his time and talent to various civil engineering tasks such as building canals and forts. Leonardo was typical of the many Renaissance engineers who made a living by selling their skills and experience at designing and building forts for an era of gunpowder warfare, and canals and other water control devices in an age that valued the control and distribution of water.


The improvements in agriculture, the growth of urban centers for trade and commerce, and the enhanced shipping technology available created a more urban-based society in the West during this era. These developments stimulated population growth, an interest in the material, and a utilitarian/mechanical perspective on the world. Clearly, the advent of mechanized printing accelerated the spread of technical knowledge and increased the literacy of engineers and the growth of technical treatises or handbooks. As Renaissance society became more secular, technology played an increasingly important role. Technology became associated with secular progress in a world that embraced rational inquiry, careful and precise observation, and widespread experimentation. To a degree not seen before in the West, technology was more closely linked to science; the resultant scientific revolution that created the modern scientific method affected technology as well. Rationalism, a mechanical world view, and logical inquiry served both science and technology at a time when both allowed people to take the measure of themselves and the world that surrounded them. The pace of technological change and diffusion accelerated, aided in large measure by the new technologies in the fields of printing and sailing. These technological developments stimulated more invention and innovation in both civil and military engineering. The resultant Renaissance emphasis on and rewards for technological change provided a proto-industrial base from which industrialism would emerge a century later. Because individual action and analysis played an important part in understanding the world, increasingly individuals took credit or were credited with technological developments; Western history became the record of human achievement to a new degree. All of these factors contributed to a new era of humanism that stimulated both science and technology and shaped modern Western culture, a culture in which science and technology are central to human progress.


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Overview: Technology and Invention 1450-1699

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