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Impearls: Simple Tech II - Knitting

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Earthdate 2004-02-01

Simple Tech II – Knitting

Physicist Freeman Dyson, in his book Infinite in All Directions, continues (see also Simple Tech I) his discussion of the impact in history of very simple technologies, using the example this time of knitting: 1

Another technology with far-reaching effects on human society is knitting.  Knitting emerged later than hay but just as anonymously.  The historical importance of knitting is explained in an article by Lynn White in the American Historical Review of February 1974.  The title of the article is “Technology Assessment from the Stance of a Medieval Historian.”  The first unequivocal evidence of knitting technology is on an altarpiece painted in the last decade of the fourteenth century, now in the Hamburg Kunsthalle.  It shows the Virgin Mary knitting a shirt on four needles for the Christ Child.  White collects evidence indicating that the invention of knitting made it possible for the first time to keep small children tolerably warm through the Northern winter, that the result of keeping children warm was a substantial decrease in infant mortality, that the decrease in mortality allowed parents to become emotionally more involved with their children, and that the increasing attachment of parents to children led to the appearance of the modern child-centered family.  The chain of evidence linking the knitting needle with the playroom and the child psychiatrist is circumstantial but plausible.  As White says at the conclusion of his analysis:  “Late medieval mothers and grandmothers with clacking needles undoubtedly assessed knitting correctly as regards infant comfort and health, but that in the long run a new notion of relationships within the family would thereby be encouraged could scarcely have been foreseen.”
 

Reference

1 Freeman Dyson, Infinite in All Directions: Gifford Lectures given at Aberdeen, Scotland: April-November 1985, 1988, Harper & Row, New York; Library of Congress catalog no. Q175.3.D97 1988; p. 136.
 

UPDATE:  2004-02-02 03:00 UT:  Simple Tech III posted.



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