Age of Invention: Outdoing the Ancients
You’re reading Age of Invention, my newsletter on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. This edition went out to over 25,000 subscribers. To support my work, you can upgrade your subscription here:
I’m still working away on the blockbuster post I alluded to last time, but in the meantime would like to share a few interesting things that took my notice while researching.
One of these is a list from 1715 of inventions that had never been known to the ancient Greeks or Romans. It was appended to an English translation of a work by the Italian historian Guido Panciroli called The History of Many Memorable Things Lost, originally written in Italian but first published by one of his students in Latin in 1599 after Panciroli had died. Panciroli himself had already noted a few things they believed to have been unknown to the Ancients. From the vantage point of the 1590s these included the better-known achievements of the moderns like moveable-type printing, gunpowder, stirrups, spectacles, weight-driven clocks, the magnetic compass, and the discovery of the New World. But he also included (though not always accurately):
The Chinese invention of porcelain — which he erroneously believed to be “a compound of gypsum, beaten eggs, and the shells of lobsters” all mashed up and then buried for at least eighty years
The discovery of bezoar stones, used against venoms and poisons, which he said were mined in the Maghreb
Refined sugar, including the art “arrived to such perfection” of candying nuts and spices
Alchemical discoveries like gilding brass, the whitening of sapphires, improved alloys of tin, the use of cupels for assaying metals, and aqua fortis (nitric acid) with which to separate gold from either brass or silver.
Distillation, especially of various oils and tinctures of herbs and spices for medicines, as well as aqua vitae or ‘waters of life’ like whisky
Cryptographical methods, which he judged to have become more sophisticated since ancient times. The later translator agreed, noting how during the English Civil Wars anyone who was anyone used ciphers, many of which challenged even the master code-breaker Dr John Wallis, Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford.
The seventh-century Byzantine invention of “Greek fire”.
Silk-making, brought to Europe in the sixth century, along with silk-based variants like velvets and satins.
He also included jousting, falconry, watermills, saddles, and the eating of fish roe dishes like caviar and bottarga. And the use of mana as a medicine. The student who published Panciroli’s work, who added some of his own commentary, was a little sceptical of some of these.
The English translator’s choices in 1715, however, are perhaps even more interesting for telling us about what were considered the early fruits of the “new philosophy” or science — the kind propagated by the likes of England’s Royal Society and France’s Académie des Sciences. This translator thought that Panciroli had died right on the cusp of the great change, “when ignorance and darkness overwhelmed all nations”, but just at the point “when learning began to revive, and arts and sciences to be enquired after.” To the translator it was obvious that discovery and invention had begun to accelerate, placing a change “within the compass of less than a century last past” — presumably circa 1615-1715 — when “such wonderful improvements have been made in most of them, that the Ancients had been surpassed”.
Whereas Panciroli worried that the moderns were still lagging behind the Ancients, by 1715 it seemed obvious that the Ancients had been outdone.
But what is so interesting, and often surprising, is what the translator chose to highlight. Here are just a few of them:
Logic, of the art of reasoning. “This art of thinking is the highest improvement of the human understanding, and is justly attributed to modern invention”. Not one I’ve heard much of before! Frustratingly, this isn’t much elaborated on. Similarly, the author rather betrays their biases somewhat by including theology.
Arithmetic, which “can now teach us not only to sum up, divide, multiply, and abstract from the whole numbers, but collect together the minutest parts and fractions into one plain total.” I think this might be a reference to the development of modern decimal fractions by the Flemish mathematician Simon Stevin? [Update: Chris Hind in the comments suggests that the collecting of parts and fractions must surely refer to the development of integral calculus in the 1670s. I think this might be right!]
Optical glasses, and particularly telescopes, which have led to improvements in astronomy and navigation — most notably the finding of one’s latitude even on the open ocean. (Our writer also believes the discovery of longitude to be near at hand. The famous prize offered by Britain for discovering longitude at sea is seen as evidence “that it was rather kept secret, than not known”. After all, to “discover” in those days did not just mean to find something out that was previously unknown, but was about public disclosure.)
Natural Sciences. Whereas the Ancients had seemingly “looked only upon the surface of things”, the moderns had discovered much from the use of dissection and vivisection about the internal workings of animals, as well as from the use of microscopes, which had revealed a hidden “new world at home” of mites, ants, fleas and flies. Our writer must have had in mind Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, published in 1665.
Surgery, or rather chirurgery. There are quite a few examples given:
Because of dissections, “the anatomy of Man’s body is fully discovered”, our author crowed, along with the nature of the nerves, tendons, glands, bones, and blood. Thanks to the work of various medieval Islamic investigators and the English physician William Harvey in the 1620s, the moderns knew that the blood circulated. The particular mention of glands is likely a reference to the 1640s or 50s discovery of the lymphatic system — one of those oh-so-common cases of near-simultaneous discovery, with claimants for the honour in England, Denmark, Sweden, and France. (My favourite case is that of the English claimant, George Jolliffe, who apparently during a dissection of testicles, which he had tied off with a ligature higher up, accidentally squeezed on one and caused the lymphatic vessels to swell up).
New methods to “cut the stone” — to remove excruciatingly painful kidney stones and bladder stones, “with little or no loss of blood, and a very small danger of life”. This sounds very specific, but I suspect bladder stones would have been a lot more common than they are today. In Paris in 1650 the diarist John Evelyn saw a boy of just eight or nine years old undergo the operation, and today bladder stones are one of the most common complaints among young children in especially rural and impoverished areas — which would describe pretty much the entire world in the seventeenth century.
“Breaking of distorted limbs and bones, and placing them in their right form”. I’m not sure about how new this was, but it provides an interesting avenue to investigate — I’ve certainly never seen it mentioned as a major breakthrough before.
The emergency treatment of quinseys — probably then a catch-all term for any dangerous swelling up of the throat, though nowadays specifically a complication of tonsillitis. The treatment was to puncture the wind-pipe, “that the patient may draw his breath that way, while his throat is cured, and so life may be preserved”. Again, it’s not something I’ve seen mentioned as a major breakthrough before.
Pharmaceuticals, or materia medica, both from greater knowledge of and access to minerals and plants, and from improvements to chemistry — or as it was then known, chymistry. The rise of international trade had drastically extended the range of drugs available at apothecaries. And “the chymist, by his fires, has found out a way to extract medicines of extraordinary force and use, from bones, stones, horns, poisons, minerals, dead flesh, and a thousand other things”.
Our author doesn’t go into specifics, but may have had in mind something like the pharmaceutical breakthrough singled out in an earlier, 1677 list of great discoveries by alumni of Oxford University: the pulvis cornachinus, or “Earl of Warwick’s powder”, invented in the 1610s by Sir Robert Dudley, the illegitimate son of the Elizabeth I’s favourite the Earl of Leicester, who as a bigamist Catholic in self-imposed exile in Europe had gone by the titles of his father and uncle, claiming to be the (never recognised) earl of Warwick and Leicester.
Dudley’s famous powder was essentially an early kind of tartar emetic, based on antimony — an effective means of expelling various parasites, although it has since been superseded because of some serious potential side-effects. As with “the stone”, I suspect people in the seventeenth century were dealing with a whole load more parasites and other problems caused by consuming contaminated food or drink, which perhaps explains the vomit-inducing powder’s popularity. In 1657, a tartar emetic cured a 19-year-old Louis XIV of France of typhoid fever.1
Agriculture: “how infinitely short [the Ancients] come of our modern improvements, will be easy to judge”. This includes the transplantation of various plants to new settings — like oranges from China to Portugal, and vines from Germany to the Canary Islands — as well as better knowledge of the right seeds and manures for all kinds of soils. Our author even singles out something I mentioned last time: the use of lime to protect seeds from diseases and pests.
Metallurgy and mineralogy: this is a long and very interesting list, including various improvements to the extraction of tin, lead, mercury, and silver, as well as the hardening and softening of steel for various uses, as well as the “distilling of coal”, the refining of saltpetre, the treatment of various gemstones, and the preparation of the glowing “Bononian Stone”, or Bologna Stone — white phosphorous.2
Pendulum clocks and balance-spring watches, invented by Christiaan Huygens in the 1650s — both vast improvements over the old mechanical clocks, taking their inaccuracies from a matter of minutes to a matter of seconds.
Glass, in the late seventeenth century improved in England to be “finer than that of Venice”, and then applied to the further improvement of microscopes and telescopes. From this
A panoply of other instruments, including barometers, thermometers, hygroscopes, anemometers, hearing aids, and way-wisers. Not to mention “an instrument for making screws with great dispatch”, and “a way of preserving the most exact impression of any seal, medal, or sculpture, and that in metal harder than silver”.
Ship-building: the ships of the Ancients are dismissed as “little better than large flat-bottomed boats, and their voyages little more than creeping the shores from one city to another, or to some islands adjoining.” The moderns, by contrast, had conquered the oceans, crossing the Atlantic, rounding the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean, and circumnavigating the Globe.
Improved diving bells: quite a big deal in the late seventeenth century, not least because they allowed for the recovery of all sorts of sunken treasures.
I could go on… But it’s a huge list already, and even the author apologised for only being able to scratch the surface — they don’t even mention steam engines! But it reveals the a whole load of avenues for further investigation. Although the eighteenth century gets all the glory today, it was extremely obvious to contemporaries that the pace of improvement had already been speeding up. By 1700 they were already confident that the Ancients had been outdone.
If you’d like to support my work, you can upgrade to a paid subscription here:
John S. Haller, ‘The Use and Abuse of Tartar Emetic in the 19th-Century Materia Medica’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 49, no. 2 (1975), pp.235–57.
Lawrence M. Principe, ‘Chymical Exotica in the Seventeenth Century, or, How to Make the Bologna Stone’, Ambix 63, no. 2 (2 April 2016), p.118–44.