Inventions of the Middle Ages

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Anupama Nair


I am going to talk about the inventions in the Middle Ages. The first practical windmills are constructed in or before the 9th century in a region spanning eastern Iran and western Afghanistan. They are described in a manuscript by Estakhri, a Persian geographer of that period, as having horizontal sails, like the blades of a helicopter, directly linked by a vertical shaft to the millstones turning below. Windmills are first mentioned in Europe in the 12th century. There is a reference to one in France in 1180, and a few years later to another in England. Since this is the time of the crusades, it is likely that the idea has been brought from the Middle East.

In about 1040 a Chinese manual on warfare is issued under the title Compendium of Military Technology. It is the first document to describe gunpowder. This black powder, formed by pounding a mixture of salt petre, charcoal and Sulphur (a dangerous process if the pounding is overdone)

There has been much argument about where the compass is first developed. The earliest reference to such a device is in a Chinese manuscript of the late 11th  century; and within the next few centuries it began to feature also in Arabic and European texts. We cannot still the Chinese got it first, given the random nature of the surviving references. However, it helped to make possible the great age of maritime exploration which began in the 15th century with the fall of Constantinople, though as yet no-one understands why a magnet always points to the north! Will we ever, no one knows?

Portable guns were developed shortly after the first cannons. In the 1360s, such a gun is a small version of a cannon. A metal tube, up to a foot long, is attached to the end of a pole about six feet in length – an early and very basic version of the barrel and stock of a rifle.

Then came Gutenberg's great achievement — printing press, capable of applying a rapid but steady downward pressure. The concept of the press is not new. However, the existing presses then exerted slow pressure that was mostly uneconomical in printing.

Even more significant than the invention of the mechanical clock was the 15th-century invention of printing with movable metal type.” It is clear, however, that this invention drew heavily upon long previous experience with block printing—using a single block to print a design or picture—and on developments in typecasting and ink making. It also made heavy demands on the paper industry, which had been established in Europe since the 12th  century but had developed slowly until the invention of printing and the subsequent vogue for the printed word


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