9 technological innovations that triggered the Age of Exploration

Here are some of the most important technological breakthroughs that helped spark the history-making Age of Discovery.
Christopher McFadden
  • 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. 
  • But which ones?

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

What was the Age of Exploration?

The Age of Exploration, or the Age of Discovery, was a period of massive European exploration of the world. Predominantly occurring between the 15th and early-17th centuries, this period 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 significant pan-European venture was rooted in developing new technologies and ideas from the Renaissance. Some, but not all, of these significant innovations will be discussed below.

What were some of the greatest technological innovations that triggered the Age of 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

9 technological innovations that triggered the Age of Exploration
A replica Caraval in Lagos, Portugal.

One of the most important technological innovations of the time was the advent of the Caravel. This relatively small 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 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

9 technological innovations that triggered the Age of Exploration
The Traverse board was another significant innovation.


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. 

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

3. The galleon was a behemoth of the seas

9 technological innovations that triggered the Age of Exploration
Replica galleon, the El Galeón, in Quebec City.

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 enemy ships. 

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

9 technological innovations that triggered the Age of Exploration
Modern ship's compass.

The magnetic compass and rose were significant inventions that helped spark the Age of Exploration. Consisting of a magnetized needle, compasses provided sailors with a potent navigational aid.

By providing a reliable way to find "magnetic north," this fantastic 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 be understated. 

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

9 technological innovations that triggered the Age of Exploration
A model pintle-and-gudgeon stern-mounted rudder.

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. 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?

9 technological innovations that triggered the Age of Exploration
Illustration of how to use the device.

The Ka-Mal, or kamal, is 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 to be 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 toolkits until the cross-staff superseded it. 

7. The cross-staff eventually replaced the Kamal

9 technological innovations that triggered the Age of Exploration
Early-19th century cross-staff,Source: The Ages of Exploration

Like 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 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 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

9 technological innovations that triggered the Age of Exploration
Drawing showing how it was used.

The lead line was another critically important technological tool for the Age of Exploration. Also known as a sounding line, it consisted of heavy lead weight on a length of rope; this straightforward 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. 

With modification, it could also be used to take samples from the seabed. 

9. Timekeeping devices were essential for navigation

9 technological innovations that triggered the Age of Exploration
Accurate time keeping was also essential.

And finally, other critical prerequisites 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 traveled at a given moment. 

This information is critically important 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 were used on many ships during the Age of Discovery. 

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

We may never really know for sure. 

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