Technology in Europe: 15th and 16th Century

Technological development in the 15th and 16th centuries were generally limited to improvements on medieval innovations. The voyages of discovery were made possible by improvements in the compass and the astrolabe (used to determine latitude). New rigging techniques made ships more maneuverable and better able to sail off the wind. The waterwheel was adapted from its traditional role as a gristmill into a power source for the textile industry and paper manufacturing, while the windmill became a valuable water pump. Although these adaptations played important role in European life, they did not have the dramatic impact of three new discoveries: gunpowder, printing, and paper.

Early windmill


Gunpowder, an explosive mixture of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal, was a Chinese invention introduced in Europe by Arabs. The Chinese tried hard to keep the knowledge of gunpowder a secret from the rest of the world. As early as the 11th century, the Song dynasty prohibited its people from trading sulfur or saltpeter with any foreigner. But while the Song dynasty was perfecting its firearms, its secret of gunpowder leaked out to the Islamic world and the Roman Empire. It is largely believed that the Islamic world acquired knowledge of the explosive mixture sometime between 1240 and 1280. From here, recipes of gunpowder spread throughout the world. It is generally believed that gunpowder technology was brought to India in the mid 12th century by the Mongols, who had conquered both India and China. However, others contend that it reached India only about a hundred years later. Knowledge of gunpowder soon spread to Europe, probably through the Third Crusade or through the Silk Route. Roger Bacon of England is one of the first Europeans who made mention of gunpowder. Gunpowder was used for the first time in Europe in the Battle of Crecy which was fought in 1346.
Although it was known during the Middle Ages, it had a significant impact only in the 15th century when the development of the cannon and the handgun revolutionized warfare. The expense of artillery pieces limited them for all but the most powerful princes. Though too unmaneuverable for the battlefield, the cannon could breach the previously impregnable fortifications of insubordinate vassals, and in pitched battle the armored knights, whose forefathers had dominated the medieval battlefield, were no match for the musketeer. The production of these weapons also stimulated the metallurgical industry, which developed the casting of bronze and iron cannon into a fine art.
Siege of Orleans 1429

Printing and Paper

printing, like gunpowder, arrived in a rudimentary form from the east by way of Arabs. Impressions were originally lifted from woodcuts, which, while satisfactory for pictures, were hardly adaptable to written copy. A breakthrough came around 1440 with the invention of movable type in the German city of Mainz. Although this invention is usually ascribed to Johann Gutenberg, he was only one of the community of printers who developed the type, ink, and presses necessary for their trade. At approximately the same time, ragpaper, developed in the 14th century, began to replace parchment and vellum as writing material. This inexpensive medium made large-scale printing practical.
Gutenberg in his print workshop
It is difficult to overstate the importance of printing to European civilization. Relatively economical and accurate copies of every type of book, from the Bible to business ledgers, became available throughout Europe in great quantities. Widespread access to the accumulated knowledge of centuries, which had previously been much restricted, spurred scholary humanistic studies and raised the educational level, particulary among bourgeoisie. The circulation at the beginning of the Reformation of hundreds of thousands of copies of Martin Luther‘s pamphlets attacking papacy is only one example of the dramatic impact of this new medium. Wholesale censorship and the banning of books also date from this era.
Titlepage and Portrait from a 1581 edition of Martin Luther’s writings in German