Mechanical Engineering in the Middle Ages: The Catapult, Mechanical Clocks and Many More we Never Knew About
For many, the Middle Ages is not seen as a period of great technological development, especially in the field of mechanical engineering. The period is generally agreed to lie between the fall of Rome in 476 AD and the Renaissance of the 14th Century it is often seen as the doldrums of human advancement.
It is often seen as a period of burning books, superstition, and all-out warfare characterized by a regression in human understanding. Although these times were undoubtedly violent this is not an accurate picture.
Medieval engineers, architects, and inventors continued to practice their trade. Sadly these men and women toiled in complete anonymity with their names now lost to the ages.
The following 19 mechanical engineering examples from the Middle Ages are no exception.
1. The Medieval Mangonel Catapult: The Artillery of the Middle Ages
When most of us here the word catapult, or indeed Mangonel, the image of four-wheeled, wooden structure with a massive spoon probably comes to mind. This is, as it turns out, not technically correct.
Catapults are, in fact, any number of ballistic devices used to throw objects over long distances without using explosives. Mangonel, on the other hand, does narrow it down a bit.
There is also some debate about whether Mangonels were medieval versions of the Roman Onager or man-powered versions of trebuchets. The former used the stored energy from torsion alone whilst the later likely used teams of men to augment a falling counterweight to launch the projectile.
Yet other historians believe the term, Mangonel, might be a contemporary collective term for any projectile siege engine, much like we use the term catapult today. Confusing!
Whatever the truth, it is widely agreed that Mangonels were able to throw projectiles at relatively low trajectory making them more suited for field battles than actual sieges.
2. Treadwheel Crane Helped Build Europe's Magnificent Cathedrals
The treadwheel crane was a wooden, man powered, hoisting and lowering apparatus used during the middle ages. Its use may even extend into the Roman period.
It is often depicted being used in the assembly of large buildings like castles and cathedrals. The engineering principle is relatively simple with a heavy load being hoisted, or lowered, via the use of a rope attached to a pulley system.
The rope is, in turn, spun around a spindle that is powered by an individual walking in a treadwheel thus allowing the weight to be raised and lowered with relative ease. Some imagery also indicates the treadwheel could be replaced with windlasses and spokes and cranks ostensibly resembling a ship's wheel.
One of the first references to the device referred to as Magna rota was in archival French literature dating from around 1225 AD. It was later typically employed in harbors, mines and of course the construction of tall buildings.
3. The Wheelbarrow Wasn't an Immediate Hit
The humble wheelbarrow is the product of the middle ages. Its concept is pretty basic being a small hand-propelled vehicle, usually with one wheel but not always, that is designed to be pushed and manipulated by a single person.
The term Wheelbarrow is derived from two words, the first is obvious but the later "barrow" is thought to derive from "bearwe" or old English for "to carry loads". Although some records indicate similar devices in China and ancient Greece, they first appeared in Europe in the 12th Century.
It would prove incredibly useful for building construction, mining operations, and farming. Despite this, it doesn't appear to have become widely adopted until the 15th Century.
4. Pintle-and-gudgeon Stern-Mounted Rudder Helped Explore the World
Pintle and gudgeon rudders were a response to the ever-increasing size of ships throughout the Middle Ages. Prior to their development oars were mounted on the sides of ships which in turn evolved into quarter rudders.
These kinds of rudders were still used at the end of the Middle Ages.
Although stern mounted rudders had been around since Roman times, some of the first depictions of a pintle and gudgeon setup has been found in a 12th Century church carving.
Like many leaps in technology, the pintle and gudgeon rudder wasn't the product of single inventive genius but the combination of a series of advancements rather than one big leap.
Stern mounted rudders were already known at the time. As too was the principle of iron hinging and straight sternposts common to Cogs (Northern European ships) of the period. It was only a matter of time for all of these elements to be combined into a single apparatus.
The technology's full potential wasn't realized until the introduction of fully rigged ships in the 14th Century. It would become a pre-requisite for the later so-called Age of Discovery, enabling Europeans to explore the seven seas of the world.
5. The Tidal Mill Was Powered by the Sea
The Tidal Mill is a form of Water Mill powered by tidal forces. A dam and sluice are usually built across a tidal inlet or river estuary in order to make a reservoir.
When the tide is low enough the water is released from the reservoir to turn the water wheel. The reservoir is then replenished when the tide rises once again.
Recent studies have found that the earliest examples of these mills date from the 6th Century AD in Ireland, but they may have been utilized in Roman London.
Once such mill is a vertical-wheeled tidal mill located at Kiloteran near Waterford, EIRE. The earliest recorded mill was recorded in the Doomsday Book of 1086 at Dover, Harbor.
6. The Liquid Driven Escapement Sets the Scene for Clocks
In 8th Century China, the concept of the escapement was devised by a Buddhist Monk, Yi Xing, in around 723 AD. He managed to devise an escapement mechanism for a water-powered armillary sphere and clock drive.
His workings would be later developed by Song Dynasty horologists in astronomical clock towers before the technology stagnated and regressed. These were not technically true mechanical escapements as they relied on the flow of liquid through an orifice to work and measure time.
Despite this, the concept of the escapement would later spread to Europe along the silk road and lead to the development of the first mechanical clocks.
7. Astrolabes Were Early Computers
Astrolabes are elaborate inclinometers, and early computers, used by astronomers and navigators to calculate the inclined position of a chosen celestial body day or night.
There is some debate about the original inventor of the device. Credited range from Apollonius of Perga between 220 and 150 BC and Hypatia later in Alexandria in the 5th Century AD.
Despite this, they reached their zenith in number and sophistication during the Middle Ages in the Byzantine Empire and Islamic world.
Astrolabes, as we know them today. were fully developed in the Medieval Islamic world. Muslim astronomers added angular scales to the device as well as circles to indicate azimuths on the horizon.
These devices would become widely used throughout the Muslim world, primarily for navigation and a method of locating Mecca. Astrolabes would later inspire the development, and design of, mechanical astronomical clocks.
8. The Mariner's Dry Compass Helped Explore the World
The first compasses were devised during the Han Dynasty and were made from lodestone. These early compasses are thought to have been used for divination purposes rather than navigation, however.
Their practical use for navigation was later realized during the Song Dynasty in the 11th Century AD. The dry compass later appeared in Europe and the Islamic world during the 14th Century AD.
This form of compass consists a freely pivoted needle on a pin, with a glass cover and wind rose. Later models were fitted on gimbals to reduce needle grounded during pitching and rolling of ships.
However, an Italian Pilot, Flavio Fioja, is traditionally credited with perfecting the sailor's dry compass in the 14th Century. It would be widely adopted and make an enormous impact on navigation at the time.
The dry compass was later superseded by the modern liquid-filled magnetic compass in the 20th Century.dry comp
9. Movable Type Was Invented in China
The first known moveable-type system was devised by Bi Sheng in China in around 1040AD. His type used a system of ceramic tiles that were arranged on an iron frame.
Bi Sheng would also develop wooden block movable type but abandoned it in favor of ceramic versions. This was because the grain of the wood often affected the print quality.
Like later printing presses it was noted that the efficiency of this method came into its own when printing hundreds or thousands of copies, not necessarily a few.
It would ultimately be replaced with metal movable type. Interestingly the world's oldest extant movable metal print book, Jikji, was printed in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty around 1377 AD.
10. Mechanical Clocks Were Built for Monks
Although devices for timekeeping had existed for millennia before, the first true mechanical clocks made their appearance in Europe around 1300. The development of the verge escapement is widely credited as the catalyst for the invention of the first clocks.
The verge escapement was the first all-mechanical escapement that appeared in 13th Century Europe. It, in no small part, changed timekeeping from continuous methods (like the flow of water or sand) to repetitive oscillatory processes, like later pendulums.
The first mechanical clocks began to be used in monasteries to toll a bell for the monks' call to prayer or perform other duties like collecting water.
Today one of oldest surviving clocks can be found in Salisbury Cathedral, England from around 1386. There is also another in Rouen, France that dates from around 1389.
11. Eyeglasses Became Popular with Wealthy Elite
Eyeglasses, spectacles or just glasses, are first recorded by Roger Bacon in 1262 and the first eyeglasses thought to have been made in Northern Italy around this time.
This is supported by references to eyeglasses in a sermon given by Dominican Friar Giordana da Pisa in the late 13th Century. He wrote: "It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses, which make for good vision... ".
Giordana's colleague Alessandro di Spina of Florence later began making eyeglasses and by 1301 Venician Guilds began to regulate the sale of them.
They were also mentioned by Marco Polo who noted that glasses were widely used by the wealthy upper classes of the time. One of their first appearances was in the portrait Glasses Apostle by Conrad von Soest in about 1403.
They would eventually significantly improve the lives of visually impaired people the world over.
12. The Hourglass Revolutionised Time Keeping
The first records of the hourglass appear in Europe in the 8th Century AD. It was crafted by a Frankish monk called Liutprand who served at Chartres Cathedral in France. But it may actually have its origins in antiquity.
It would not be until the 14th Century that the hourglass would become commonplace with the earliest depiction being in the 1338 fresco Allegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.
The hourglass would soon be recognized as a reliable means of measuring time at sea and, when used in conjunction with the magnetic compass, set the stage for the Age of Discovery. Magellan would have no less than 18 per ship during his expedition.
From the 15th Century onwards they would be used in wide array of applications from the church to industry.
13. Heavy/Turn/Moldboard Plow Increased Farming Efficiency
Although plows in some form or other have been around since antiquity, it wasn't until the Middle Ages that plows became 'heavy duty'. Heavy or turn or moldboard plows were developed to help farm less-fertile areas were soil needed to be 'turned' to bring nutrients to the surface.
These plows, when dragged through a field, scoured rectangular strips of topsoil, lifted and then flipped them upside down either side of the plow. This process led to the distinctive ridge and furrow fields characteristic of the Middle Ages.
Some of these fields can still be seen today.
These plows greatly reduced the amount of time needed for farmers to prepare their fields. This, therefore, allowed farmers to work much larger pieces of land whilst simultaneously producing water channels between the ridges improving soil drainage.
14. The Arbalest Crossbow: The Hand Cannon of the Middle Ages
The Arbalest was a Medieval improvement on the well-established crossbow technology that was a common sight of the battlefields of 12th Century Europe. Arbalests were much larger than earlier crossbows but were much more powerful utilizing the high tensile strength of steel as the 'bow' arms.
The term, Arbalest, likely comes from Medieval French which in turn is derived from the Roman arcuballista (arcus 'bow' and ballista 'missile-throwing engine').
They were incredibly powerful weapons with the strongest ones able to yield up to 5,000 pounds (22kN) of force and maintain an accuracy of around 300 meters.
Because of the massive increase in tensile strength the Arbalest needed to be 'cocked' using a windlass. This was a slow process but a skilled Arbalester could loose around two bolts a minute.
15. Spinning Wheel
The Spinning Wheel, the precursor to the Spinning Jenny and Frame of the Industrial Revolution, was first invented in India around 500 AD. It, as the name suggests, was a device for spinning thread or yarn from natural or synthetic fibers.
It later spread to China, the Middle East, and Europe by around 1280AD. Effectively making the earlier technique of hand spinning with a basic spindle obsolete.
After this time they became the standard piece of equipment for turning fiber into yarn. By the 17th Century, they could be found in homes leading to the cottage industry that helped spark the Industrial Revolution.
16. Chain Water Pumps
Chain water pumps are historically known to have been in use in the Middle East, Europe, and China since the Middle Ages. They may even have existed in ancient Babylon and Rome.
There is solid evidence that working pumps, some with over 200 components, were used extensively by Muslim engineers in the Middle Ages.
Chain pumps consist of a looped chain with a series of circular discs to capture water. The chain runs through tubes slightly larger than the discs and water is entrained by the rising action of the discs within the tube.
Muslim inventor, Al-Jazari, took the principle a little further by designing the first saqiya chain pumps. These were driven by hydropower and crankshafts and with minimal intermittency.
17.The Ribauldequin Was the MiniGun of the Middle Ages
The Ribauldequin or Ribault was a Medieval attempt at a rapid-fire artillery piece. It was, in effect, a series of gun barrels mounted on a cart that was deployed during the 14th and 15th Centuries.
As the weapon consisted of a series of barrels that resembled pipes, they came to be known as organ guns or, more accurately, death organs. The guns had a caliber much smaller than cannons but larger than contemporary handheld guns of the time.
The barrels of the weapon was designed to be fired in quick succession. Some of the larger pieces were horsedrawn with up to three sets of guns. Some totaled around 144 guns that could unleash a devastating volley against infantry and cavalry with impunity.
They would, in the long run, prove to be unwieldy and would often get stuck in the mud. Ribault's also took a long time to reload between volleys and would eventually fall out of favor.
18. Counterweight Trebuchet: The Howitzer of the Middle Ages
The Counterweight Trebuchet is a mechanical engineering marvel of the Middle Ages. It proved to be one of the most powerful and formidable artillery weapons of the medieval period, ideal for siege warfare.
It evolved from the traction trebuchet, not to be confused with Mangonel, and relied on a large weight as the driving force to throw its projectile over large distances.
True Trebuchets differ from other ballistic devices of the time owing to their relatively high projectile trajectory and much greater suitability for siege warfare,
They began to appear in Europe and the Islamic world in the 12th Century and into China around the 13th Century. The earliest descriptions of them come from commentary on Saladin's conquests at this time.
19. The Drawbridge Was Forgotten for Centuries
The drawbridge, technically bascule bridge, is one form of engineering in the Middle Ages is still in use today. Although initially developed to enable castles to close their entrances to attackers the technology was forgotten for centuries.
The term generally applies to various forms of movable bridges like modern bascule bridges, vertical-lift bridges, and swing bridges. They were typically made of wood and could be raised and lowered using chains or ropes attached to a windlass within the gatehouse.
Heavier drawbridges were augmented with counterweights to assist the raising and lowering of the bridge, as is common in bascule bridges today.
Engineers would later rediscover the technique use it to build modern movable bridges to allow ships to pass under them.
So there you, 19 Mechanical Engineering in the Middle Ages. Have we missed any important examples from the period? Please feel free to add your suggestions below.
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