The Inventions and Technologies That Changed History (Part 1)

What Innovations had a Make or Break Impact on the Nations and Societies

Interviewer: Aco Momčilović, psychologist, EMBA, Owner of FutureHR, Ph.D. Student @ University of Dubrovnik

Interview with Mirko Sardelić, Ph.D., Research Associate at the Department of Historical Studies HAZU, Honorary Research Fellow of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100–1800) at The University of Western Australia; formerly a visiting scholar at the universities of Cambridge, Paris (Sorbonne), Columbia, and Harvard.

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Intro: The human species has a unique capacity in terms of abstract thinking and innovation. Our civilization has advanced as humans developed new creations. Now, we are living in times when the speed of innovation is faster than ever when the reach and the adoption of every new technology is quicker and wider than ever before. Still, on the one hand, we have small but very innovative countries; on the other hand, some countries are quite big in terms of size and highly populated, but still falling behind. In this interview, we will discuss which technologies and discoveries changed the course of history and the balance between societies and countries.

Q1: What were the first discoveries that happened at the dawn of our civilization? How long did it take for them to spread around the globe?

From today’s perspective when we think about technology, the things that come to our mind are often connected to electronics, robotics, or nanotechnology. But in order to get to these advancements, some simple yet fantastic discoveries shaped the way humans made the environment much more hospitable, or safer. If a community wanted to protect itself, its members needed fortifications such as walls and fortresses. If they wanted the fortifications to pose a serious obstacle, they made them of big blocks of stone; and this was not just in ancient times. How does one transport these huge blocks much easier? By rolling them on tree trunks, forming slides of some sort, with humans or animals pulling ropes. Tree trunks are round, they roll nicely across the terrain; and if you cut just a piece of a cylinder, you get something which can be called a wheel. Four kinds of independent evidence for the use of the wheel for wagons appeared across the ancient world between 3400 and 3000 BCE. The wheel has had an enormous impact on human history; however, there were some advanced civilizations, such as the ones in South America, that did not use it.

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One tends to overlook the importance of the screw, the last of simple technologies invented, some 3000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Just check out modern machinery and you will see how bolts and screws keep those machines together. In Mesopotamia and ancient Greece screw pumps were used for irrigation, i.e. to transport water. One can also mention nails, a simple and yet very important element that binds things together.

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In terms of processes that are more complex, I believe that the development of metallurgy had a huge impact on these later stages of human evolution — it got us out from the Stone Age anyway. In order to be able to shape bronze, humans first needed to develop the technology of furnaces capable of maintaining the temperature around 1000 C. Arguably the oldest Bronze Age cultures were in the Balkans, around the Danube basin, some 6000 years ago. Bronze was a great asset when it comes to making tools and weapons. Bronze weapons were crucial in combat — many wars were won just thanks to this improvement. Around 1700 BC the people from western Asia called Hyksos used their bronze weaponry and chariots to conquer not just any kingdom, but the grand Egypt whose infantry was fighting the war while equipped with copper swords.

As far as the circulation of these inventions is concerned, resources of information, innovations, and techniques accumulated in each region sooner or later found their way throughout the Afro-Eurasian zone. The exchange and transfer of knowledge in this vast continental mass were quite intense; however, it took up to several centuries for some technologies to get introduced to various places during the Metal Ages. Conversely, three other inhabited continents were left out of this flux.

Q2. Was there a discovery that helped our civilization to mature and form the concepts that we see today — countries and nations?

This is quite a broad aspect. Let us begin with agriculture and the domestication of animals that are closely connected with sedentary cultures. Farmers started planting grains some 10–12.000 years ago, and not much later (probably some 10.000 years ago), sheep, pigs, and cattle commenced their cohabitation with humans. Food surpluses allowed the creation of the first cities, in Mesopotamia and South Anatolia, before 7000 BCE. Requisites for agriculture were favorable climate and access to water; the latter was acquired through, among other means, irrigation, another great invention. In river valleys and swampy terrains of Egypt or Southeast Asia, one could use digging sticks to create seed drills, but harder soil craved for the invention of plows.

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Cities became centers of economic, political, and religious activity. Let us just remind ourselves that 55% of the world’s population today lives in urban areas, which is projected to be close to 70% by 2050.

As for spiritual activity, Christian and Buddhist societies of the Eurasian continent experienced the important invention of the monastic life. An order of men detached from quotidian social connections, eminently mobile, dedicated their life to specialization in the highest intellectual or spiritual discoveries that contributed significantly to their societies.

Nations are imagined political communities, mostly formed in the 19th century for various reasons; mostly aiming political stability that ensures all other activities to develop in what is perceived a safer, more homogenous environment. In principle, the institutions of national governments are trusted with the nation’s defense, education, legislation, civil rights, foreign relations, transport infrastructure, and a whole set of tangible and intangible structures that enable complex social activities.

Q3. What were the main historical discoveries and innovations that started new epochs of development?

The first that comes to my mind is the one that marks the beginning of history: the invention of writing. It was invented in several different places independently, first in Mesopotamia and Egypt (ca 3200 BC), then in China (1500 BC) and Mesoamerican cultures. In the beginning, it was used mostly to record the most important information related to agriculture or taxation, but later on, it developed into an indispensable tool to transfer ideas; in short, this included anything worth remembering and developing. Manuscripts were circulated across the Afro-Eurasian world for centuries, contributing to the development of ideas and technologies. Writing is the embodiment of ideas, but it is much more than that: it has a cognitive and social function. Therefore, we all continuously practice writing, we contemplate, polish, and revise our texts, i.e. our ideas.

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Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century made the written word the medium of mass communication and removed some limitations for the circulation of information. Books became more accessible, and more numerous: it is estimated that by the year 1600 some 200 million copies of various books were printed. One can only imagine how many more books eventually were printed over the four centuries that followed. A subsequent medium that appeared in the 17th century, the newspapers, shaped the world of information in the way that the Internet and TV shape digital circulation today.

Q4. What technologies made the biggest changes in relations between the countries or continents, or changed their power relations?

The 18th century saw the invention of the steam engine. Its improvements in the 19th century gave birth to machines, which resulted in enormous advancements in the industry, transportation, and agriculture. In turn, this gave base to the rise of superpowers such as Great Britain and the United States of America. High-pressure engines started setting ships, trains, cars, and eventually airplanes in motion. Steam engines powered the Industrial Revolution that shaped the world as we know it today.

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Q5. With the development of new weapons, in the 21st century, the old ones are becoming increasingly obsolete. Tanks dominated in the last 100 years but are now becoming useless, mostly because of much cheaper drones. Was there a discovery or technology that empowered one country in war or a similar kind of conflict?

In one of our previous interviews, we mentioned that one who wants to win the war needs two requisites (to start with): the means to finance it and good logistics. In the present day, the development of new weapon technologies is more entangled with the financing of new ideas and related discoveries. But in the past, some very simple ideas lead to the creation of extremely powerful military units. Again, somewhat neglected from a modern perspective, chariots were a high-tech weapon some 3000 years ago. It is not directly connected to technology, but it is hard to overemphasize the importance of horses in warfare through at least four millennia of human history. Alright, some inventions such as the stirrup or the saddle made them more effective over time. Cavalry was a predominant force until the invention of reliable, fast, and powerful weapons at the beginning of the 20th century. For centuries European armies had difficulties confronting Eurasian nomads (the Huns, Magyars, Cumans, Mongols…) whose light cavalry used (composite) bows to launch thousands and thousands of arrows in a matter of minutes. Even one of the most successful military formations of ancient times, the Macedonian phalanx, needed cavalry on its flanks despite its 5-meter-long spears.

Composite bows and longbows were the light artillery for millennia. The mentioned steppe nomads dominated battlefields of Eurasia using exactly those kinds of weapons. English longbows were the equivalent in Western Europe in the Late Middle Ages (12th-15th centuries). It's mechanic’ cousin, the crossbow, was so powerful and lethal that Pope Innocent II (1139) forbids its use against Christians.

Great wars of the 20th century significantly improved weaponry, created nuclear powers, and lead to the development of rocketry.

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Previous articles:

History of Pandemics

History of Earthquakes 1 & 2

History of Money 1 & 2

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Human Resoucres, Psychology, Entrepreneurship, MBA…

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