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History of inventions

March 30, 2013

Why progress was slow

It amazes me to question why man did not progress (sort of) industrially before he actually did — say before the year 1453AD. What was so special about that year or the period that followed, that it should have catapulted humanity to unprecedented heights, and should have opened his mind to unlock the secrets of nature, worldwide? Why not in the age of the great kings and conquerors who could have pitched in with their wealth to assist the spread and proliferation of inventions, to the extent of ‘selling’ their inventions abroad gainfully, like some of them patronised poetry or music? After all, the ‘basic’ items had been in their use for a long while, so it was not a complete novelty for them to have discovered new forms and ways to employ better means for better results. The basic items, as I call them, were, firstly, cotton — essential for the all-important clothing for the rich and poor alike. Then means of travelling — horses and mules being the only means of overland travel available to them. This required a radical innovation to make travel and means of transporting goods faster. Thirdly, food, forever in short supply, often led to nationwide famines. More food means more variety in dietary habits. Instead, course food — barely enough, was what they ate. Fourthly, education — there was absolute no education for the teeming millions for it was confined to a microscopic minority. Just think about the millions upon millions of innocent boys and girls like yourself not being able to read or write, going about in tatters, aimlessly, until they were picked up to be thrown into endless battles from which they stood to gain virtually nothing except perhaps the spoils of battle, if at all they survived. Those millions who died in the course of wars, or the ensuing illnesses, or the rampant epidemics were soon forgotten — as if they had never existed. Their guardians, or the surviving wives and children were almost never informed about their fate — whether killed in battle or consumed by disease. And then endemic occurrence was not uncommon. Do you know about the dreaded disease called leprosy? It killed more than 25 million people in about three centuries in Europe alone (mainly in Spain, Portugal, Germany, France, England and Holland). Perhaps some day we will be able to talk about leprosy in detail, and how it, along with other dreaded epidemics like cholera, malaria and, of late, ‘flu’ decimated humanity at will. That will give us an idea about how our ancestors eked out miserable and unprotected lives. Likewise, I wonder if you know that influenza, a common ailment today, killed more than one million hapless people in the U S alone after the First World War (1914- 1918)? Under such trying and difficult conditions it was but natural that man should have endeavoured to change his lot. For that he was required to battle against not one another but against ignorance, illiteracy, forces of nature, prevailing practices in conservative societies, and, in the case of Europe, religious fanaticism. However, the emerging society of America was different in this regard for it readily embraced new ideas being floated across the continent of Europe, and even overtook them in due course of time. My questions and observations above carry some of the answers to the riddle. Let this be known that man was as inventive then, as now. When he invented crops (which he improved and organised from simple shrubbery), learned to domesticate animals, for it was no mean or frivolous business but one that required perseverance; made for himself clothes, boats, weapons, shoes and other simple items of everyday need; or built those great buildings and structures, he was as smart and as intelligent as in the year 1453AD, or a couple of centuries later, or now (or ever in the future). He could have achieved a lot more than he actually did but for some reasons. All of these reasons emanate, or originate from the conduct or behaviour of his fellow human beings. Those few that led and destroyed the lives of untold millions through untold centuries. We should like to take a look at some of the factors that procrastinated, or delayed the progress of humanity through the period prior to the year 1453: 1. A large number of people were compelled to build, fight wars or work in the agriculture sector. Neither brought rewards that would benefit the masses. 2. State structure was not universal, and bereft of institutions as would help the people develop and grow progressively. 3. The social, hence economical, system did not entertain or receive new ideas. Anything like a machine would disrupt the prevailing social system. Conservatives of all hues banded together to throttle new ideas. Lives of Giordano Bruno, Galileo Galilee and Al-Beruni are some examples to show how cruelly the society acted against them. 4. Religions permitted conquests but not progress, which would involve concerted effort of a large number of people otherwise wanted for warfare. History is full of instances where the church successfully resisted free thought, or expression. 5. Mathematics was confined to civil engineering, i.e., construction activity and not other sciences and disciplines such as astronomy. Not until the 15th century was mathematics applied in physics, astronomy and allied sciences gainfully. The application of this wonderful branch of science which would change the world rapidly was realised many tortuous centuries late. 6). The concept of ‘it is good for the masses’ was not in vogue, or popularly believed, much less practised. Application of laws for the protection of peoples’ rights was unheard of. In fact, there were no laws in this regard. There were remarkable examples for the future rulers to follow, but they conveniently chose to ignore them, instead continuing in their despotic ways. The periods of Hazrat Umer and Sher Shah Suri provided rights to the common man to lead a life free from want and exploitation, and also ample personal security to society at large. All ideas leading to prosperity soon fizzled out, as soon as their respective rules ended. 7. Rule of the mighty and the arrogant persisted, denying people their basic rights. The word of the mighty was law, nothing else mattered. Thus it continued for centuries, millennia to the detriment and backwardness of people — until they were accustomed to it and no longer cared, or desired for a change in their lives. Machine would change nearly all of that. England is the best example: with machine came people’s rights; with the rights came democracy — and then the world changed, gradually but inexorably. In fact, it is still going through the process for ‘old habits die hard’. The invention of the printing press (1453AD), not much of an event for the age, nevertheless was the catalyst that was crying to happen. How? We shall discuss this later.