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Development: The history of inventions

November 03, 2012

Inventions speak of, and portray man’s resourcefulness, his keen intellect, resolve and his response to burgeoning needs and upcoming challenges as also his restless genius employed with aplomb, facility and perseverance in pursuit of attainment.

Inventions are thought to be mainly confined to machines. It is true that machines are revolutionary in nature, making life easier. Then, one machine leads to its improved and more efficient versions, thus it becomes popular and useful, leading to better economic conditions. A large number of people benefit from its tangible, snowball effect.

Inventions of the ‘other kind’ are taken lightly, occasionally even ignored. Pioneering work in fields like agriculture (over edibles like cereals, fruit and vegetables) and non-edibles (like cotton), medicine, health, animal husbandry, furniture, handicraft like carpets, footwear, apparel, pottery, sports et al, are some activities which involved the handiwork, imagination and inventiveness of a large number of people was verily rewarded — albeit in slow incremental steps.

The great migrations of peoples over the last 30 to 40 thousand years across the vast expanse of the sprawling continents and oceans must have opened minds, and honed the skills of the early peoples into innovations in a variety of fields mainly related to overland and oceanic travel, and domestication of animals in the lands they came to acquire and populate. Although all of the peoples under similar circumstances did not prosper in the similar manner: Aborigines of Australia, Maories of New Zealand and some tribes of Papua New Guinea, South and North Americas and even Eskimos — those that crossed into North America from the farthest eastern tip of Asia in the opaque past, lagged behind along with the inhabitants of Africa, south of Sahara.

Man has been around for a good 50,000 years (in fact much longer, for Homo Sapiens have long completed their 100,000 years). Chronological story of man from the last 8,000 years backwards is not available (except in the form of cave paintings, which go back longer). For the ‘missing period’ of 42,000 years or more, only conjectures apply. One such conjecture is presented here.

The last Ice Age persisted for a long time and ended some 12,000 years back, causing great mountains of solid ice covering millions of square miles to melt and expose brown earth by that much. The great bridge of ice (such as Bering Straits, connecting Far Eastern tip of Asia with Alaska), across which peoples of the Asian stock rambled into North American continent, melted and disappeared into the sea — a natural crossing point taken away by nature! Instead of endless swathes of rock-solid ice, gushing cold waters took its place wiping off the land bridge.

My young friends will be amazed to learn that there was so much ice on the planet that at the peak of the Ice Age, New York lay buried under one mile (over 5,000 feet) of ice! So were all other higher northern as well as southern latitudes.

The one great advantage of the dissipating ice was that a lot of land opened up for human habitation and animal husbandry, and for a lot of wild animals to roam free. With endless salubrious, verdant regions available in abundance to the scanty bands of stragglers, they no longer had to roam in search of land. They settled down with their animals, employing their flair and inventiveness to develop cultures and civilisations — gingerly at first, rapidly soon after.

Now, the first ever explosion took place — the population explosion!

With plenty of fertile, never cultivated lands freely available, little hamlets, then cities, sprouted up. Who could have imagined that within a few thousand years these little towns would develop into great civilisations, mainly along riverine deltas. The Tigris-Euphrates, the Nile, our very own Indus valley, the Ganges and many others across Mexico; Mekong, the mighty Yangtze, the vast Amazonian delta are some of the places which provided them with ample resources to begin with. Not that he succeeded in all places, yet man put his genius to work to create a flurry of crops, tamed animals, built homes, cities and fortresses, invented various political systems and social customs that worked fairly well, and... learned to write.

The invention of writing was a quantum leap forward. Many thousand years later it would lead to invention of printing press (moving type) in 1453AD.

Along with man’s evident penchant and flair for creative activity also straggled a strong urge to snatch — snatch, rob, steal, usurp what strictly belonged to others. Nevertheless, cultures of deep and abiding profusion developed along the Mediterranean rim, notably the islands of Greece around the Aegean sea, fed by Minoan and Cretan cultures, which were eventually overrun by the intruding Mycenaean from the mainland Greece after 1,000 years of the flowering of the Minoan civilisation(along this period it progressed from culture to a civilisation).

The Minoans employed tin, alloyed with copper obtained from Cyprus to smelt bronze — a remarkable early invention that would lead to Iron Age. The Bronze Age cultures developed uninterrupted enjoying noticeably peaceful times on and around the island of Crete from 27th to 15th century BC, a good 1200 years. I have seen and admired the Minoan pottery, and bronze works of exquisite design, shape and perfection, enough to hold an abiding appreciation of these remarkable people.

Minoan cities, about 90 of them on the island of Crete, were once connected with stone-paved roads. Blocks were cut with bronze saws. Streets were drained and sewer facility was available. Workshops were built along the coastal highways, and harbours to facilitate despatch of finished goods to far away places, Egypt among them. Large and luxurious palaces dotted the entire island intermittently. Thus, this civilisation developed through economic intensification.

While Minoans were among the longest lasting of all civilisations, one perturbing question defies answer: what prevented them from setting into motion, or even pioneering an ‘age of inventions’?

We will have to consider some other cultures and civilisations to find an answer to this question of prime importance to historians and anthropologists (those who study peoples and their cultures).

Similar to Minoans, civilisations along Indus Valley and Nile delta presented a high degree of discipline, vibrant bureaucratic systems and enterprise which knew no bounds.

These acquisitions were a result of centuries of individual efforts, high degree of innovation and industry which distinguishes them from those that came before, or followed them. Just examine the cities of Moenjodaro and Thebes. These are enough to amaze you endlessly. At roughly 1,000BC the stage was set for a ‘quantum leap’. In my estimation these civilisations were ready for the final kill — all of them in their own regions and epochs.

The age of discoveries and inventions should have set into motion at that point in time. Instead they missed the opportunity and either perished or went into deep slumber.

As a result the world had to wait for about 2,000 years for the imminent revolution to take effect. Why the yawning gap, the needless procrastination?

The interesting and vibrant story of inventions requires an in-depth and incisive run-up to the great flurry of discoveries and inventions when they eventually came. The purpose was to arouse the interest and curiosity of my young friends into the times and epochs of our ancestors. How they toiled and suffered for the glory of those for whom they slaved. And got nothing in return.

And the story of those few who toiled and struggled in quest of comfort for their fellow human beings. Many of them did not live to see their inventions flourish or blossom but they went on and on and on... This should serve as an example for my young friends to follow.