Today, the story behind an arbitrary date. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
"I'm off to write Episode
1370," I remark. "Oh, what happened in 1370 AD?"
comes the reply. Now there's an idea. Match a date
to the episode number and see what was going on in
The Hundred Years War was grinding along. Steel
crossbows were just coming into use. Jan van Eyck's
older brother Hubert was born that year, and
Gregory XI became Pope. No great Earth-shakers
there, but history is not just a chronicle of
Earth-shaking events. History assumes its form
within arrays of small events.
Twenty-three years earlier, rats had left a ship
from the Orient and scurried into the streets of
Genoa carrying the disease yersinias pestis,
better known as The
Plague. By 1370
over a third of Europe's people were dead and
society was redefining itself. The mechanical clock
was invented around the beginning of the century.
The first public clocks
were made just before The Plague and, by 1370, they
were in wide use. The clock became the icon of
post-Plague years. Labor was expensive in a
depopulated world. And time, like money, was now
something to be measured and managed. The new
clocks drove a new exactitude. They answered the
question, "how long?" and then led to other
questions -- "How much?" "How far?" "How heavy?"
"How hot?" Mechanical clocks were the first step
toward a new science based on measurement.
No one clock was Earth-shaking, but clockwork was
on the way to shaking the earth.
The year 1370 looks like a hiatus, an era of small
events. But it was a time of ferment. Steel
crossbows were small items
in a big arms race. Out of that race,
firearms emerged as medieval Europe's
nuclear warhead. Hubert van
Eyck's brother, Jan, would soon establish the
art of oil painting. In the generation before 1370,
education took a leap forward. Universities were
founded at Pisa, Grenoble, Prague, and Vienna.
Universities soon followed at Heidelberg and
Kin to scientific measurement was musical notation.
It'd reached a state approaching its modern
precision by 1320. Now musical innovators like
Dunstable, Machaut, and Landini had far more
efficient means for manipulating their ideas on
paper. Music was just about to begin another great
One of the most important events occurred just
after our random date and it's a surprise.
displaced dice at medieval gaming tables. You'd
think that'd be the most forgettable of new
technologies, but cards posed an odd problem. Each
card had to be identical to the next. Block
printing was old, but now people focused on
printing technique. It's no accident that Gutenberg
figured out how to print a whole Bible with
moveable metal type only 80 years after the first
So what was afoot in 1370? Only minor things, only
the little things, only the things that would alter
life on Earth during the next century!
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds