Today, an unexpected cause for invention. 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.
In 1971, historian Lynn White
looked at cultural climate and technological
change. We know so much about what happened in
medieval Europe a thousand years ago, he said, but
we stumble over why it happened.
The period from the eleventh to the early fifteenth
century was marked with the most astonishing
technological growth. Europe went from a wilderness
to the most technically advanced region on Earth.
But why? White begins by saying it was certainly
not necessity. All cultures share necessity. We
all need to get physical work done. We all need
food and comfort. If necessity was present in
Northern Europe it was just as present everywhere
So White looks at patterns of borrowing. Europe
invented plenty of new technology, but adaptations
of foreign technology reveal how two cultures
reacted to the same idea. Most of you have heard
about how the Silk Road brought Oriental technology to the West.
How we took up gunpowder,
papermaking, the trebuchet for throwing stones at
enemy castles, and so forth.
To this familiar list he adds other inventions. He
gives evidence that the idea of bowed stringed
instruments came from Java at the end of the tenth
century. Yet music in Southeast Asia remained
largely percussive while the use of bowed
instruments took off in the West. We not only
developed the forebears of the violin, we also
shaped our musical tradition to their sounds.
It is clear that Europe saw technology as means to
be exploited in ways that other cultures did not.
White finds an important clue when he looks at
perpetual motion. We know that perpetual motion is impossible
because energy is
conserved in its various forms; we can't get it
out of thin air. However, it would've been hard to
know that a thousand years ago.
The first perpetual motion machine was proposed in
India, not so much as practical means for doing
work as an embodiment of the idea of karma. It
turned up a century later in Baghdad as a curiosity.
But when it reached Europe, people became
fascinated with the infinite energy-generating
potential of the cosmos. Of course, no perpetual
motion machine was ever built, but the invention of
the mechanical clock escapement was its direct
And so White turns to philosophical and religious
forces at play in Medieval Europe. The Church,
which defined Medieval culture, proclaimed a very
new idea: It was that the scholar, far from being
exempt from manual labor, had to do the labor of
the monastery. Christ, after all, had labored as
That idea shaped a vast system of monasteries where
scholars both toiled and contemplated. Those monks
turned into a breed of gadgeteers -- constantly
using their minds to lighten
their labor. And so, by engaging labor, the
Medieval Church did more than any other culture
before it to reduce labor. That is an
interesting paradox -- and it is one, I think, that
we should remember.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
L. White, Jr., Cultural Climates and Technological
Advance in the Middle Ages. Medieval Religion and
Technology. Los Angeles: University of
California Press, 1978. Chapter 14 (reprint of a 1971
See also J. Gimpel, The Medieval Machine: The
Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages. New
York: Penguin Books, 1976.
God depicted as the Master Craftsman in a medieval
drawing cited by Gimpel
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.