The Fruits of Civilization (23-4) Industrial Technology

Industrial Technology

Nothing dramatic distinguished the Middle Ages from the early modern period in either agriculture or industry. Innovation was incremental: mostly refinements to known technologies. But some improvements possessed latency to much larger economic effects later on.

 Printing

The first-known movable-type printing system was invented in China ~1040 by Bi Shēng, using ceramics. Wood was tried but uneven swelling resulted after the wood was soaked in ink. (Wang Zhen reinvented wood type in 1298, which was used in China for centuries.) Metal movable type was invented in Korea in 1234 by Choe Yun-ui. This meant little to the Chinese, who had been using copper blocks to print money from the beginning of the 12th century.

German blacksmith and goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg introduced printing via metal movable-type to Europe in 1450. While a technological breakthrough, the immediate economic impact of printing was miniscule outside the book trade in terms of employment or the value of goods.

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Other innovations of the period – weaponry, navigational instruments, clocks and watches – had minor economic effect at the time, though their cultural and political significance was enormous; which meant, in time, the productivity improvements of these inventions made a large and lasting economic impression.

Somewhat similarly, in the 20th century computers had a time lag between invention and economic effect. Much of this owed to the difficulty of squeezing more productivity from machines that were hard to program and use owing to deficient design.

The Dutch excepted, the market orientation in Europe during the early modern period was greater in industry than agriculture. This encouraged entrepreneurs to reduce production costs and respond to changes in consumer demand. There were powerful forces aligned against innovation, especially opposition by political authorities who feared the effects on unemployment from labor-saving devices.