Guns, SailsDespite its grand sounding name, Guns, Sails and Empires: Technological Innovation and European Expansion, 1400-1700 by Carlo M. Cipolla, was a rather pedestrian recitation of the development, manufacture, size and weight of iron and bronze guns over the period. The stories about the huge guns the Turks made, with 24' barrels, that could be fired only once every few hours was interesting. The sparse comments on sail, compared to the much better book, Arthur Herman's To Rule the Waves, were notable in that Cipolla attributes England's rise to the harnessing of Nature's power in the sail rather than relying on manpower, and the ships' providing a floating platform for the big heavy guns which were otherwise unwieldy and mostly unusable on land. These two technological advances allowed the British to control the coasts wherever they wished. The Venetians, the Chinese, and other powers relied on human power, which lacked the leverage the British harnessed in the face of Nature. The idea of breaking away from human work and using Nature's power to leverage is what I found fascinating. The greatest feature of the capital markets today is they are the purest form of leveraging human intellect for productive gain. There is no other occupation that produces more benefit or greater reward for the amount of physical labor than speculating or investng in the capital markets. This is not to say it is without work, but in terms of physcial labor, it is barely lifting a finger — the blood, the sweat and the tears notwithstanding.

Vincent Andres adds:

LongitudeAnother important (and marvelous) technological advance is described in Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time, by Dava Sobel. From Amazon's book description: 

Anyone alive in the eighteeth century would have known that "the logitude problem" was the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day — and had been for centuries. Lacking the ability to measure their longitude, sailors throughout the great ages of exploration had been literally lost at sea as soon as they lost sight of land. Thousands of lives, and the increasing fortunes of nations, hung on a resolution.

The scientific establishment of Europe — from Galileo to Sir Issac Newton — had mapped the heavens in both hemispheres in its certain pursuit of a celestial answer. In stark contrast, one man, John Harrison, dared to imagine a mechanical solution — a clock that would keep percise time at sea, something no clock had ever been able to do on land. Longitude is a dramatic human story of an epic scientific quest and Harrison's forty-year obsession with building his perfect timekeeper, known today as the chronometer. Full of heroism and chicanery, it is also a fascinating brief history of astronomy, navigation, and clockmaking, and opens a new window on our world.


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