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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
From 8000 BC
From 3000 BC
6th century BC
Middle Ages
15th - 16th century
     Printing in Europe
     Domestic clocks
     The first globe
     Stocking frame
     Microscope and telescope

17th century
18th century
19th century
20th century
To be completed

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Gutenberg and western printing: 1439 - 1457

The name of Gutenberg first appears, in connection with printing, in a law case in Strasbourg in 1439. He is being sued by two of his business partners. Witnesses, asked about Gutenberg's stock, describe a press and a supply of metal type. It sounds as though he is already capable of printing small items of text from movable type, and it seems likely that he must have done so in Strasbourg. But nothing from this period survives.

By the time he is next heard of in connection with printing, he is in Mainz. He borrows 800 guilders in 1450 from Johann Fust with his printing equipment as security. The resulting story of Gutenberg and Fust is a saga in itself.


Gutenberg's great achievement in the story of printing has several components. One is his development of the printing press, capable of applying a rapid but steady downward pressure. The concept of the press is not new. But existing presses (for wine, oil or paper) exert slow pressure - uneconomical in printing.

More significant are Gutenberg's skills with metal (his original trade is that of a goldsmith). These enable him to master the complex stages in the manufacture of individual pieces of type, which involve creating a master copy of each letter, devising the moulds in which multiple versions can be cast, and developing a suitable alloy (type metal) in which to cast them.


All this skilful technology precedes the basic work of printing - that of arranging the individual letters, aligned and well spaced, in a forme which will hold them firm and level to transfer the ink evenly to the paper.

The printing process involves complex problems at every stage, and the brilliance of the first known products from Gutenberg's press suggest that earlier efforts must have been lost. If not, the decision to make his first publication a full-length Bible in Latin (the Vulgate), printed to the standards of the best black-letter manuscripts, is a bold one indeed.


No date appears in the Gutenberg Bible (known technically as the 42-line Bible), which was printed simultaneously on six presses during the mid-1450s. But at least one copy is known to have been completed, with its initial letters coloured red by hand, by 24 August 1456. The first dated book from these same presses, in 1457, is even more impressive. Known as the Mainz psalter, it achieves outstanding colour printing in its two-colour initial letters.

These first two publications from Germany's presses are of an extraordinary standard, caused no doubt by the commercial need to compete with manuscripts. The new technology, so brilliantly launched, spreads rapidly.


Domestic clocks: 15th century

After the success of the clocks in Europe's cathedrals in the late 14th century, and the introduction of the clock face in places such as Wells, kings and nobles naturally want this impressive technology at home.

The first domestic clocks, in the early 15th century, are miniature versions of the cathedral clocks - powered by hanging weights, regulated by escapements with a foliot, and showing the time to the great man's family and household by means of a single hand working its way round a 12-hour circuit on the clock's face. But before the middle of the 15th century a development of great significance occurs, in the form of a spring-driven mechanism.


The earliest surviving spring-driven clock, now in the Science Museum in London, dates from about 1450. By that time clockmakers have not only discovered how to transmit power to the mechanism from a coiled spring. They have also devised a simple but effective solution to the problem inherent in a coiled spring which steadily loses power as it uncoils.

The solution to this is the fusee.


The fusee is a cone, bearing a spiral of grooves on its surface, which forms part of the axle driving the wheels of the clock mechanism. The length of gut linking the drum of the spring to the axle is wound round the fusee. It lies on the thinnest part of the cone when the spring is fully wound and reaches its broadest circumference by the time the spring is weak. Increased leverage exactly counteracts decreasing strength.

These two devices, eliminating the need for weights, make possible clocks which stand on tables, clocks which can be taken from room to room, even clocks to accompany a traveller in a carriage. Eventually, most significant of all, they make possible the pocket watch.


The first globe: 1492

One of the most unfortunate innovators in the history of invention is Martin Behaim, the creator of the world's first globe - made in Nuremberg in 1492.

His idea is excellent. A globe is the only accurate way of representing the surface of the earth. His misfortune is to base his globe on Ptolemy (who postulates a single ocean between Spain and China) and to achieve his three-dimensional version of this notion in the very year in which it is disproved - by Columbus reaching America. But Behaim shows the reason for Columbus's confidence in sailing west. The distance on his globe between Spain and China is only half what it should be.


Stocking frame: 1589

The world's first piece of industrial machinery is invented in 1589 by an English clergyman in Nottinghamshire. Tradition maintains that his inspiration derives from annoyance at his loved one being so busy with her knitting whenever he comes courting. The frustrated lover, William Lee, duly invents a knitting machine.

His device, known as the stocking frame, depends upon a needle with a hook which opens and closes at successive stages of the process to imitate the procedure of the hand-knitter. Lee's type of needle (known as the beard or bearded spring needle) is still a feature of the machines used in modern industrial knitting.


Elizabeth I refuses Lee a patent for his stocking frame, partly on the far-sighted grounds that it may damage the trade of hand-knitters. Lee then takes his machines to France, on the invitation of Henry IV, but they are brought back to England after the assassination of the French king in 1610.

Framework knitting gradually becomes established, and the Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters is given a charter by Charles II in 1663. The growth in the number of machines over the next two centuries reflects the gathering pace of the Industrial Revolution. There are some 650 stocking frames in Britain in 1660, and about 43,000 in 1844.


The knitting machine also provides an early instance of the Luddite tendency, as the threat predicted by Elizabeth becomes an increasingly evident reality.

As early as 1710, in Spitalfields in London, stocking frames are thrown out of the window of a small factory during a dispute between the knitters and the owners of the frames.


Microscope and telescope: 1590-1608

The principle of the microscope and of the telescope is identical - that two lenses, placed in line at the correct focal distance, will enlarge a detail of what is being looked at. With the microscope this enlargement reveals features too small for the unaided human eye to focus on and perceive. With the telescope the enlargement brings closer an object too distant for the naked eye to see with any precision.

This effect is a likely one for lens grinders and specacle makers to stumble upon in the course of their business. Its discovery seems to have been made in this way in the Netherlands in the late 16th or early 17th century.


Tradition credits the discovery of the microscope to Zacharias Janssen in 1590 and of the telescope to Hans Lippershey in 1608. Both men are spectacle makers in the town of Middelburg. Tradition even provides the happy event which brings to Lippershey's notice the concept of the telescope.

One day, with a lens in each hand, Lippershey happens to hold them in line with the steeple of a nearby church. On looking more closely at the nearer lens, he sees the weathercock in surprising detail.


Once the principle has been recognized, it is a simple matter to mount two lenses in a sealed tube to make a telescope (from words meaning 'far' and 'look at' in Greek). Such toys, for such they must have seemed, are soon on sale in large numbers in Amsterdam. But when news of this invention reaches Galileo in Venice, in 1609, he rapidly turns the idea to more serious purposes.

The microscope has to wait rather longer until it is put to the service of science - by the Italian biologist Malpighi in 1661.


The flintlock: 16th - 18th century

From the middle of the 16th century there are attempts to ignite the powder in the pan of a musket by means of a spark rather than from an already burning match. The flintlock is poised to replace the matchlock.

In a flintlock the spark is created by striking a sharp flint obliquely against a surface of slightly roughened steel (the device is already in domestic use in the tinderbox). Just as the trigger in a matchlock brings down the smouldering match, so it now uses the same action to strike the flint down sharply above the pan with its charge of gunpowder.


European countries develop their own differing versions of the flintlock. The one which eventually becomes standard is designed in France in about 1610 - possibly by Marin Le Bourgeoys, whose name is on a flintlock in the private collection of Louis XIII.

The French flintlock has the advantage of a halfcock position (with the gun ready to fire but safe), and its method of directing the spark into the pan proves reliable. By the 18th century it is the standard musket throughout most of Europe and in the American colonies. Spanish armies are the only ones to retain their own variety of flintlock, known as the miquelet.


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