The term ‘dark ages’ was coined by a 14th century Italian scholar called Petrarch, and has since been informally used to refer to the period between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe. While historians rarely use the term anymore, many people still hold the notion that it was a period of relative ‘darkness’ in the history of Europe, Middle East, and Asia, when the knowledge and culture gained during the Greek and Romans eras was destroyed and replaced by anarchy and war, until the ‘light’ of the Renaissance.
Of course, as historians are gradually finding out, the period was anything but dark. The so-called Dark Ages was a time of dynamic change across the world, marked by pivotal inventions in mathematics, navigation, manufacturing, architecture, and countless other fields. Some of the most crucial inventions in history directly come from early innovations during this period, from printing to clocks to modern finance.
The idea of the medieval mariner’s astrolabe could be traced back as far as Ancient Greece, though it was only from the sixth century AD that it could be mass-produced for common use. Simply put, an astrolabe is a device used to measure the positions of celestial bodies, initially developed for navigation and later adapted for various astronomical purposes. It was widely used in the Middle Ages across the Arab world, Byzantine Empire, India, and Europe, and then in Islamic Spain around the 10th century.
The astrolabe would prove to be a groundbreaking invention in the Age of Exploration, when mariners at sea relied on an adapted version called the mariner’s astrolabe for navigation. For the first time in history, they had a device that allowed them to calculate their latitude by measuring celestial bodies like the Pole Star or the Sun. Portuguese seamen used the astrolabe to determine their return trips from West Africa, followed by the famous journeys made by Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus to India and the Americas, respectively.
Salvino degli Armati is often credited with the invention of the first eyeglass between 1285 and 1299. While magnifying lenses and other similar innovations had already been made in the Arab world and other places much earlier, Armati’s invention – combined with the rise of the Italian glassblowing industry – allowed it to be produced at a mass scale for the first time in history.
His eyeglass consisted of two simple convex lenses joined together with a central joint, with a frame made of materials like bone, wood, wire, or leather. Unlike earlier similar prototypes like reading stones, these eyeglasses could be comfortably placed on the nose.
It wasn’t just a revolutionary invention for reading, but also many other inventions further down the road, like the early microscope developed by Zacharias Janssen and his son Hans in the late 16th century. Galileo Galilei further perfected the combination of a concave and convex lens in the compound microscope in 1625.
8. Woodblock Printing
Woodblock printing was invented during the Tang and Song eras in China. It was the beginning of mass dissemination of knowledge and literacy, believed to have emerged around 600 AD from ancient practices of stone seals and inked rubbings. The process would be perfected by the end of the Tang dynasty, involving engraved characters on wooden blocks, inking the blocks, and then transferring the text to paper.
Woodblock printing was soon being used across China for various purposes, including printing books on agriculture, medicine, calendars, and calligraphy. The year 762 was a major milestone in the field of printing, when the first commercially-printed books were sold in Chang’an.
Despite its importance at the time, however, woodblock printing was time-consuming and laborious. It would take many more years for it to be faster and accessible enough for mass production, which came with the invention of moveable-type printing in the Song era.
7. Mechanical Clocks
Invented around the 13th century, mechanical clocks marked a significant advancement in timekeeping technology, evolving from ancient water clocks that had been in use for millennia. The key innovation that distinguished mechanical clocks from earlier designs was the escapement mechanism, allowing a steady rhythm of movement with gears to move in a series of equal jumps.
The true significance of this innovation wasn’t immediately clear to early clockmakers, as it was just an incremental improvement over water clocks at that point. As we know now, it was the beginning of a new age of precision timekeeping, allowing innovations in other fields like navigation. The earliest mechanical clocks quickly spread across the region spanning northern Italy to southern Germany by the late 1200s, eventually completely replacing water clocks as the preferred timekeeping device of the age. Mechanical clocks would play an instrumental role during the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution eras.
6. Tidal Mills
Tidal mills were an important medieval invention dating back to the seventh century. Primarily used to grind grain with the power of the tides, they were soon extensively used across modern-day England and Ireland. They were strategically placed in low-lying coastal areas or river estuaries for maximum effect, functioning like traditional watermills that relied on tides instead of the wind.
At their most basic, tidal mills were constructed with a dam equipped with a passageway to control the flow of water, allowing it to enter during high tide and storing it for later use with a water wheel during low tide. The earliest excavated tidal mill was constructed around 619 AD, discovered at the Nendrum Monastery in Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland. The concept had gained widespread adoption by the 18th century, when most of the world’s tide mills were concentrated in and around London.
5. Musical Notations
While musical notations existed in some form as early as the late 10th century, Guido of Arezzo is usually credited as the first musician to come up with staff notations. It’s still the foundational notation system for western music, largely invented by Guido as a tool to notate sacred music during the Middle Ages, as it was a time when sacred melodies were still orally passed on due to the lack of a proper system to record them in manuscript form.
Guido’s system introduced four lines or staff and letters, which wouldn’t make sense to most people but would be an instrumental tool for musicians for centuries to come. His system revolutionized music education and vastly reduced the time required to train singers and instrumentalists. Guido also introduced solmization – a technique that assigned syllables to specific intervals and gave way to the ‘do-re-mi’ system still used in Latin music.
4. Medieval Castles
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of the medieval castle, as empires and kingdoms have been building fortified perimeters around their settlements for thousands of years. It’s much easier to trace the medieval European castle that we all recognize, however, which really began to take shape during the ninth century. This transformation was particularly rapid in Western Europe, especially in France, and the castles during this period were usually made with a high mound encircled by a ditch along its circumference.
While they worked well in the beginning, these early timber fortifications were soon found to be vulnerable to fire weapons and general rot over time. The first stone castles were built by King William after the Norman invasion of England in 1066. Stone castles of all kinds would soon crop up across medieval Europe, as builders and monarchs experimented with new designs and techniques to make them more secure.
Algebra is a major branch of mathematics that deals with symbols, variables, and equations. Its origins can be traced back to the works of the Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, during the ninth century. The word ‘algebra’ itself is derived from one of his works, Hisab al-jabr w’al-muqabala, which was arguably the first treatise ever to describe the modern concepts of the field. It was later translated into English as The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing, bringing the science to Europe and other places during the Renaissance period.
Muhammad al-Khwarizmi provided systematic solutions for linear and quadratic equations, with real-life applications in fields like calculating inheritance and trade. He worked in the famous House of Wisdom in Baghdad – perhaps the largest library and hub of knowledge in the world at that time.
2. Paper Money
Paper money revolutionized the concept of currency and paved the way for modern finance. While it originated in the Song era in China some time around the 11th century, the idea had already taken root during the Tang Dynasty, when promissory bonds or bills issued by trustworthy agents were already in use on the Silk Road. These were not true paper notes, however, as they still required private individuals to authenticate their value.
During the Song Dynasty, the state established licensed deposit shops where individuals could deposit coins and receive government-issued notes. The state took direct control of the system in the 12th century, introducing the world’s first government-produced paper currency called jiaozi. These notes were printed with woodblocks, using six colors of ink and varying paper fiber mixes to discourage counterfeiting.
The Song Dynasty introduced a national currency backed by precious metals in 1265, which could be used across the empire in denominations from one to one hundred strings of coins. While the innovation was short-lived, thanks to the Mongol invasion of 1279, it laid the basis for the extensive system of paper money deployed in the latter Mongol-led Yuan dynasty.
Gunpowder could be called one of the most influential technological innovations in history. It was initially developed by alchemists in Tang-era China in their quest for a true elixir of life. According to legends, one unknown alchemist accidentally came up with the perfect composition for gunpowder some time around 850 AD, using 75 parts saltpeter, 15 parts charcoal, and 10 parts sulfur. It would soon be put to military use, especially against China’s more-formidable enemies like the Mongols.
The Song Dynasty employed gunpowder in a wide variety of weapons, including ‘flying fire’ type arrows and hand grenades, and even early landmines and flamethrowers. The concept spread further through Mongol conquests, eventually reaching the Middle East and Europe by the 13th century. In the 14th century, Europeans stumbled upon something now known as ‘corned powder’ – an enhanced explosive paste that vastly improved upon the durability and safety of earlier mixtures