INVENTIONS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

12 May

Francis  Bacon  (1561–1639), England’s  premier  philosopher  of science and Lord High Chancellor,  said that if we considered the ‘‘force, effect, and  consequences’’ of all the products  of human  ingenuity,  the three most important inventions were printing,  gunpowder,  and the compass. It was especially significant, Bacon noted, that the three inventions that had  changed  the appearance and  state  of the world were unknown  to the ancients.

The first European book  printed  with movable  type appeared  in 1454, which was about  four years after printing  began in Europe.  The establishment   of  printing   presses  throughout  Europe   in  the  1460s launched  a  communications  revolution   that  might,  at  least  in  part, account  for  the  permanence  of  the  Renaissance.   Texts  printed  with movable type before 1501 are known as incunabula, a term coming from the  Latin  word  for  cradle,  to  indicate  that  such  texts  represent  the infancy of the printed  book.

The print revolution accelerated the trend towards literacy, the diffusion  of  ideas,  and  the  establishment   of  a  vernacular   literature, and transformed a scribal and image culture into a print culture. Inter- est  in  educational problems  was  not  limited  to  higher  learning  and university curricula,  but included reform programs  for elementary edu- cation. In contrast  to centuries of laboriously  hand-copied  manuscripts, within  a few decades,  millions of books  had  been reproduced. By the end  of the  fifteenth  century,  printing  presses had  been  established  in some three hundred  European cities and towns. While scholars praised printing  as ‘‘the art that  preserved all other arts,’’ advocates  of literacy could say ‘‘shame on those who cannot  read.’’ Censorship  rules were a serious threat to printers in many countries, because publishing heretical materials  could be punished  by imprisonment or death.

The role of the printing  press in the Renaissance  and the Scientific Revolution has,  however,  been  a  matter  of  debate  among  scholars. Theological,   legal,  and  classical  texts  generally  preceded  works  on science and medicine. Jean Charlier  de Gerson’s writings on self-abuse, De pollutione nocturna, printed  in Cologne about  1466, may have been the first printed  medical book.  Some historians  emphasize  the impor- tance of the printing press in standardizing and preserving texts, as well as increasing  the  numbers  of texts  available.  Of course,  careless  and ignorant   printers   could  introduce   errors   and  multiply   errors   more rapidly than  scribes could corrupt  hand-made books.  But copy editors, proofreaders (‘‘correctors’’), and skillful editors understood the danger of introducing errors. Errors in the text or the illustrations  and captions could  be particularly dangerous  in medical and  surgical books.  When editing  medical  texts  for  a  printer   in  Lyon,   the  French   humanist Franc¸ois   Rabelais  (1490?–1553), who  is best  known  for  his  satirical attacks  on superstition  and  scholasticism,  allegedly said: ‘‘One wrong word may now kill thousands of men!’’ An  avalanche  of  advice  literature,   especially  texts  dealing  with

health  and  diet, was a major  product  of the print  revolution.  Popular texts in the vernacular  told people what foods,  drugs,  and  spices were ‘‘good’’ or  ‘‘bad’’ for  their  health,  explaining  proper  food  choices in terms of humoral  and medical theories. Advice on hygiene still discussed the Galenic rules of health or regimen in terms of the six non-naturals: food  and  drink,  air  or  the  environment, exercise and  rest,  sleep and waking,  evacuation  and  repletion,  and  the passions  of the soul or the emotions.  Similar  formats  were adopted  by texts  that  gave advice  to wealthy readers about  sex, clothing, cosmetics, health, family life, man- aging pregnancy and childbirth,  wet-nursing, child rearing, and so forth. Medical  writers had to find ways of adapting  medical theories to New World  plants—such   as  tomatoes, potatoes,   and  tobacco—that  were being used as foods and  drugs.  Written  advice could get very detailed without causing embarrassment to the advisor or the patient.  Of course, the advice literature  was probably  consulted  more often  by those who were ill than by those who might learn to preserve their health by actu- ally following  lifestyle advice.  The  authors   of  advice  literature  often complained  that  people  only  worried  about  diet  and  proper  regimen when they were already  sick.

Despite  the  inevitable  grumbling  about  the  vulgarity  of  printed books as compared  to manuscripts  and the fear that an excess of literacy might be subversive, scholars and an increasingly literate populace were generally more concerned with acquiring the new treasures than in com- plaining  about  the end of scribal  culture.  Once in print,  a text  could speak to students  directly, rather  than  through  the professor  or keeper of manuscripts. The mass-produced book made it possible for the young to study, and perhaps even learn, by reading on their own. Without  the art  of papermaking, which  originated  in China,  the  knowledge  revo- lution  launched   by  the  printing   press  would  have  been  impossible. Johannes  Gutenberg’s  Bible, one of the few early books  to be printed on parchment, required  the skins of three  hundred  sheep. Europeans would have run out of sheep before printers ran out of orders for books. Although  printed  books  were not as difficult to obtain  as manuscripts, they were still very expensive and had to be chained  to library  shelves to discourage  theft.

Gunpowder weapons  have  an  important place  in the  history  of medicine because they forced surgeons to deal with problems unknown to Hippocrates and Galen.  The Chinese probably  invented  gunpowder and  the  compass,  but  others  have  claimed  prior  or  independent   in- vention.  As Europeans followed  the compass  around the world,  they brought  back new plants,  animals, and remedies and left in their wake a series of ecological and  demographic catastrophes that  transformed the world.

Random Posts

Comments are closed.