History of inventions: Europe led, others failed to follow
For a long while I have been wondering why at least one of the great peoples of antiquity could not usher in the technological (call it industrial) revolution that eventually came as a result of the Renaissance (14th century onward Europe).
About 20 civilisations or cultures can be called great. Those who, with a little shove could have stumbled upon what would be later termed as the birth of the industrial revolution. Count among these Assyrians, Indus Valley, Egyptians, Chinese, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs in Spain and in west Asia, Mughals, and before them, in another land, the Aztecs and the Incas. They came quite close to causing it.
At least one of them could have come up with a rudimentary model (prototype) of a printing press (after all most of them had learned the art of writing), or else a pinion, or a spinning ‘Jenny’ or whatever else could have set into motion an activity not undertaken before their times.
It may be kept in mind that Iron Age had taken the place of Bronze Age, except for the Indus Valley. For bronze is an alloy, and not a pure metal which has to be smelted by mixing of at least a couple of metals, which in itself is technologically achieved, and is therefore a remarkable activity requiring the genius of man, and a collective effort besides.
Man’s rendezvous with nature was commonplace. He virtually lived with nature, which was often troublesome. He had to strive to make conditions better. It was only possible with innovation and inventions. Little things did matter but having discovered and employed them to his advantage was not enough. One thing led to another.
The trouble, however, is that without the basic (underlying) principle no formidable thing comes into being. We have to appreciate what prevented these otherwise great people to ‘create’ an ‘age of discovery’.
Let us try to explore the reasons why exactly these peoples of antiquity came so close, yet could not cause an industrial revolution of sorts.
1. A vast number of people were engaged in building activities, fighting wars, forever struggling, to be consumed in the cause of whoever wielded power; not over a collective gain but for the good of whosoever commanded them. Dynastic wars wore them out too. Poverty, deprivation, terminal illnesses were accepted as Fate, debilitating whole peoples.
2. State structure was neither strong nor universal. Which means that a vast majority had no command over their day to day affairs, much less over their lives, which took away any motivation or urge from their lives. Their children lived and died the way their forefathers did. Hence they were neither ready, nor willing for change of any kind, resigning themselves to their fate.
Borders were porous and given to frequent changes, offering them little security or permanence. In contrast, Western Europe was going through a metamorphosis. Their education, building activity (London, for instance was redesigned and rebuilt by the great architect Sir Christopher Wren after the great fire of 1666), literature, arts and craft, politics, and above all, land distribution went through slow and inexorable change for the better. With every little invention, society went through a corresponding change.
Scientists and inventors began to sprout all over Europe, but mainly in England, France, Holland, Sweden, Poland, Denmark, Russia, Italy, Czechoslovakia and simultaneously, in Germany. Germans, who comprised a group of 70 odd provinces, principalities, and duchies, each governed independently, and were in a state of warfare, decided to combine and became one country in 1871 under a leader of extra-ordinary merit, named Otto von Bismark (like our very own Quaid-i-Azam). That proved as a spur to the industrious German people.
3. All inventions, and consequently almost the entire industrial activity came to be dependent on the pinion (or bevel) for transfer of motion in machine, in whose absence, it was dependent on human hands to make it work to some extent. With so many hands employed on a trivial task such as that, any sustained industrial activity like making of swords and shields for the battle fields alone could have come under the circumstances!
4. Despite subsistence agriculture, which means that just enough food grew, little effort was made to raise agricultural output. Thus the need for more food did not arise. Famines were few and far between.
5. Machine, besides men to work on, requires something else to make it work. That something of primary importance is oil. As fossil oil was not discovered, and fully understood until the year 1870, blubber (the fat of whales) was employed to run machines somewhat efficiently. Thus a vast number of whales were trapped and killed and oil obtained for the industry. This was a gigantic work requiring ships and skilled men willing to offer whatever sacrifice was demanded for the undertaking.
Thousands died or suffered injuries while whaling. This could only be done by men who knew the sea inside out. Such men, armed with their knowledge of the seas, employed the necessary bravery to help their countrymen capture faraway lands together with their resources as colonies. On the contrary, the colonised people were too stuck in convention, and lazy to outwit the energetic Europeans. Hence they lost out. With wealth obtained from overseas colonies, rebuilding of Europe on industrial lines was inevitable. In Asia only Japan, after initial hesitation, realised the need and did catch up with Europe.
6. The social systems of these societies were too deeply mired in customs and traditions to entertain new ideas. When the newly-invented printing press was brought into the court of Emperor Shah Jahan, it was sneered at and made fun of. Naturally, it was no match for the work performed by several dozen men working on a single book, drawing up floral margins. But an opportunity was lost, and we were thrown back a century or so.
It is in the nature of men to revel in what they have and to look down upon the achievements of others. It slows them down, and often grinds them to a halt. But those who do not rest on their laurels go on and on and on.
For the remaining part of this article, please wait till the next issue! That will complete the story of the pre-invention age leading up to the year 1453 when the movable type printing press was invented and spurred on other inventions.