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9 Greatest Technological Innovations That Triggered the Age of Exploration

Here are some of the most important technological breakthroughs that helped spark the Age of Discovery.

9 Greatest Technological Innovations That Triggered the Age of Exploration
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As Europe emerged from the Middle Ages, its new growing confidence led many Europeans to explore the rest of the world. Using the latest scientific and technological innovations, these pioneers would rely on some very important pieces of kit. 

Here are but some of the most important technological innovations that enabled sailors during the Age of Exploration to sail their way around the seven seas.

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What was the Age of Exploration?

The Age of Exploration, otherwise known as the Age of Discovery, was a period of massive European exploration of the world. Largely occurring between the 15th and early-17th centuries, this period of history saw large amounts of European ships searching for new trade routes and partners to help feed the growing economic power of many nations in the continent. 

As part of this global expansion, Europeans began to encounter new peoples and cultures and mapped many parts of the larger world that were never-before-seen by European eyes. Some of the most famous explorers of the time include the likes of Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Pedro Álvares Cabral, John Cabot, Juan Ponce de León, and Ferdinand Magellan.

This great pan-European venture was rooted in the development of new technologies and ideas that grew out of the Renaissance. Some, but not all, of these great innovations will be discussed below.

What were some of the greatest technological innovations that triggered the age exploration?

And so, without further ado, here are some of the main technological innovations that eventually triggered the Age of Exploration. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. The Caravel was a technological marvel of the times

age of exploration caraval
A replica Caraval in Lagos, Portugal, Source: Lacobrigo/Wikimedia Commons

One of the most important technological innovations of the time was the advent of the Caravel. This relatively diminutive sailing vessel found many uses during the Age of Exploration. 

First developed by the Portuguese in the 15th Century, these ships would become the workhorses of the seas.

Many were used as pure cargo vessels, while others found service as warships, fishing boats, patrol craft, pirate ships, and, of course, exploration vessels. Each ship weighed between 50 and 200 tons apiece and was pretty cheap to build even in their day.

Fast, maneuverable, and seaworthy, these ships ferried many a European to faraway lands. 

2. The traverse board was an essential tool during the Age of Exploration

age of exploration traverse board
Source: Matt Gibson/Twitter

Another very important technological innovation of the age was the traverse board. This relatively simple device helped ships, like Caravals, stay on track on long voyages.

It was, in effect, a sort of early computer and helped keep things organized on the ship. Using it, sailors during the Age of Exploration could record the speed of their ship and the direction in which it had traveled over a given period of time. 

This tool was, to put it mildly, a priceless piece of kit to early explorers and sailors. 

3. The galleon was a behemoth of the seas

age of exploration galleon
Replica galleon El Galeón in Quebec City, Source: Cephas/Wikimedia Commons

Another major technological development of the Age of Exploration was the galleon. Developed in the 16th century, this ship was a massive upgrade to ships that came before it, like the Caraval. 

Ever the "one-size-fits-all" of the seas, galleons could be readily modified for different duties depending on needs. During times of war, they could be fitted out to become floating fortresses or converted to trade ships during periods of peace relatively easily.

Their hulls had large amounts of ribbing and bracing, making them ideal for withstanding all but the most powerful of enemy ships. 

4. The magnetic compass and rose were a huge leap forward technologically

age of exploration compass
Modern ship's compass, Source: Ships & Seas/Twitter

The magnetic compass and rose were also incredibly important inventions that helped spark the Age of Exploration. Consisting of a magnetized needle, compasses provided sailors with an amazingly powerful navigational aid.

By providing a reliable way to find "magnetic north", this amazing device is thought to have first been developed in China around the 11th century. 

The importance of this relatively simple device to this period of history cannot really be understated. 

5. The pintle-and-gudgeon stern-mounted rudder was another important invention

age of discovery rudder
Source: Bernd Klabunde/Wikimedia Commons

Thought to have developed sometime in the 12th-century, the pintle-and-gudgeon stern-mounted rudders were another major pre-requisite technology for the Age of Exploration. Before their development, boats and large ships relied on simple oars or quarter rudders to maneuver.

The technology soon spread around Europe and beyond. When combined with the fully rigged vessels of the Age of Discovery, they became an invaluable tool to sailors of the period. 

6. Have you ever heard of the Kamal?

age of exploration kamal
Source: Markus Neilbock/Wikimedia Commons

The Ka-Mal, or kamal, is yet another important technological innovation that helped kick off the Age of Discovery. Consisting of a piece of wood and a piece of string, this tool was used to estimate a vessel's latitude at sea.

First thought to have been developed by Arab sailors in the 9th-century, this is the first device known used to estimate one's latitude.

The person using it would line up the horizon with the bottom of the device and then sight Polaris using the other end. Once everything lined up perfectly, the user could calculate the approximate position of the ship.

This simple device was, for a time, an invaluable tool in many a long-voyage sailor's tool kits until it was superseded by the cross-staff. 

7. The cross-staff eventually replaced the kamal

age of discovery cross staff
Early-19th century cross-staff, Source: The Ages of Exploration

Similar in many respects to the kamal, the cross-staff, or Jacob's staff, was also used to estimate a ship's latitude at sea. Used in much the same way as the kamal, the cross-staff proved to be far more reliable and accurate.

As the name suggests, it consisted of two pieces of wood that cross one another to make an elongated T-shape. Each staff also had a measured rule of some kind that recorded the distance along the staff needed for the cross-bar to move up or down to align the horizon and Polaris star. 

This reading would provide an estimate of the angular altitude of the star, and by extension, the vessel's latitude. 

8. The humble lead-line was another important piece of technology

age of exploration lead line
Source: Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio/Wikimedia Commons

Another critically important technological tool for the Age of Exploration was the lead line. Also known as a sounding line, it consisted of heavy lead weight on a length of rope, this very simple device was used to take depth recordings of the ocean floor. 

This was important information as it helped sailors determine the type of ocean they were currently sailing over and ensure the ship wouldn't become beached, or worse, wrecked on reef or submarine rock outcrop. 

It could also be used, with modification, to take samples from the seabed. 

9. Timekeeping devices were essential for navigation

age of exploration hour glass
Source: tin/Twitter

And finally, other critical pre-requisites for the Age of Exploration were timekeeping devices. Not only were they used to help keep things in order on deck, but they were also vital for calculating the speed at which a ship was traveling at a given moment. 

This information is of critical importance for navigational purposes, and even simple sand hourglass tools were used initially. As mechanical clocks became more widespread towards the end of the middle ages, they would be used on many ships during the Age of Discovery. 

Without any of these great technological innovations ever being developed, the momentous events of the Age of Exploration may never have occurred. Or, just perhaps, they simply sped up the inevitable. 

We may never really know for sure. 

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