Sunday, May 6, 2007



Many of the world's most ground-breaking inventions came out of Renaissance Europe. The years between the late 14th and early 17th centuries were characterised by imagination, experimentation and change in the schools of science, design and engineering.

This chapter will focus on three of the most significant inventions of the Renaissance period in Europe: the printing press, the telescope and the caravel. Each of these three inventions, along with the smaller, yet equally useful devices and contraptions that they inspired, changed the course of history.

The printing press

Invented in the mid-15th century by a German goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg, the printing press was one of the most significant inventions of the Renaissance. Before the printing press revolutionised the world of literature, books were hand-written and many people did not even learn how to read. Although a system for printing characters had already been invented in China around 900 years earlier and in Korea around 200 years earlier, in Europe there had been no system for printing moveable type. These earlier systems of printing could only print fixed sequences of characters, which could not be moved around to create new combinations like Gutenberg's moveable-type press.

As Gutenberg was not famous during his lifetime, his exact date of birth is not known; it is believed to be around 1400. It is also believed that he first commenced work on his printing press in the late 1430s and had finished it by 1440. The first book to be printed in several volumes and multiple copies was the Holy Bible. It was published in Latin by Gutenberg and his associate, Johann Fust, in 1452.

It is hard to exaggerate the impact that printing has had on the modern world since Guttenberg's press was built over five centuries ago. In the field of literature, it enabled the fast flow of information and made possible the spread of new ideas throughout Europe. People who were previously illiterate now had motivation to learn how to read, which lead to a more educated population. This, in turn, made people more inquisitive. It also made people more inclined to challenge their existing beliefs about the world.

In terms of its impact on the world of art, prints enabled budding artists to see examples of other artists' work, which helped them to develop a wider variety of skills. Prior to the advent of printing in Europe, artists were only exposed to the ideas and styles of their mentors and immediate colleagues.
The telescope

For most of the Middle Ages, it was believed that the Earth was positioned at the centre of the universe. Prior to 1543, when a man named Nicolaus Copernicus published a book titled On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, this belief had gone largely unchallenged. In this famous book, Copernicus presented new theories on the structure of the solar system. In one of these theories he proposed the controversial notion that the Earth and planets in fact revolved around the sun and not vice versa.

About half a century after Copernicus made his astronomical hypothesis, a Dutch lens maker named Hans Lippershey created an instrument that would help prove that his bold statement was, in actual fact, accurate. The year was 1608 and Lippershey's ground-breaking invention has been credited as the world's very first telescope.

News of Lippershey's invention spread quickly. One year later, in 1609, an Italian scientist name Galileo Galilei, decided to try and make a better telescope. The telescope Galileo built could magnify things up to 30 times - ten times more than the one built by Hans Lippershey. It was quite simple by modern standards, consisting of a series of glass lenses which enabled Galileo to see things such as the craters on the surface of the moon.

It was not long before Galileo's new and improved telescope revolutionised people's understanding of astronomy. About one hundred years after Galileo's telescope was built, the famous scientist Isaac Newton refined its design by replacing the glass lenses with a single, rounded mirror. The invention of the telescope sparked an entire scientific revolution; from that point forward, the world of science would never been the same.

The caravel

The caravel is the name given to the large, masted vessels that were used by colonial powers during the Age of Exploration (or Age of Discovery), which began in the 15th century. Portuguese and Spanish explorers were the first to use caravels to navigate the uncharted waters of the Atlantic Ocean and African coastline, in their pursuit of 'undiscovered' territories and new trading routes.

The first caravels built by the Spanish and Portuguese were approximately 15 metres long. Their design was influenced by the designs of Chinese, Arabic and earlier European sea trading vessels, which were smaller and less sophisticated. These earlier ships did not have tall masts and large square sails like the caravels, and it is likely that they would not have had the capacity to safely cross the Atlantic Ocean (known in the 15th century as the 'Ocean Sea').

The invention of the caravel enabled Portuguese explorers like Bartholomew Dias and Vasco da Gama to travel around the rugged southern tip of Africa, through to the Indian Ocean. It also made possible Christopher Columbus' epic journey to the Americas, which sparked the onset of an era of conquest and colonisation. One of the crucial differences between these caravels and earlier ships was the addition of square-rigging (or square-shaped sails). This made the ships less vulnerable to strong winds.

For most of the Middle Ages, Italy had been opportunely positioned at the centre of Europe's vibrant trade network. After the caravel encouraged westward and southern maritime exploration, however, Italy was no longer at the forefront of European commercial activity.

Not only did the Age of Exploration have a far-reaching impact on European history, but it has had an extremely long-lasting impact on the entire world. Before this period, Europeans believed that the world consisted of Europe, Africa and Asia. Westward exploration turned this false understanding of world geography around completely, which is why the caravel is now considered one of the most significant inventions of the Renaissance.

With each new voyage and 'discovery', the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies gained much more dominance in Europe than they had previously held. As soon as the Spanish began colonising the Americas, the colonial race between Western Europe's naval powers was on. The greatest colonial powers during the Age of Exploration were Spain, Portugal, Britain, France and the Netherlands.

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