Engines of Our Ingenuity
No. 1370:
ANNO DOMINI 1370

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1370.

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 created them.

"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 Europe then.

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 Cologne.

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 evolutionary leap.

One of the most important events occurred just after our random date and it's a surprise. Playing cards 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 playing cards.

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 work.

(Theme music)


For source material on the specific items mentioned in this episode, click on the underlined words to find episodes with reference material on the given topic. A good way to to see the lay of the land in AD 1370, or in any other year of interest, is to go to any of the full historical timelines available in your library.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H. Lienhard.

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