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Impearls: Simple Tech III - The Spinning Wheel

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Earthdate 2004-02-02

Simple Tech III – The Spinning Wheel

Physicist Freeman Dyson, in his book Infinite in All Directions, continues (see also Simple Tech II) his discussion of the huge impact in history of simple technologies, considering now the spinning wheel: 1

Another technology which [historian Lynn] White retrospectively assesses is the spinning wheel.  The spinning wheel was a Chinese invention.  The earliest documentary evidence of its existence is a Chinese painting dating from approximately A.D. 1035; it appears to have reached Europe during the thirteenth century.  The spinning wheel led to a rapid expansion of European textile manufacture and to a concomitant growth of commerce.  The growth was especially rapid in the linen trade.  Falling prices led to an immense increase in the use of linen shirts, sheets, towels and of starched and folded linen coifs decking the heads of fashionable ladies.  These were the direct consequences of the new technology.  But the indirect consequences were of even greater importance.  Cheap linen meant an accumulation of linen rags, and the availability of linen rags meant that paper became cheaper than parchment.  By the end of the thirteenth century, the great majority of manuscripts were written on paper.  There was more paper than the scribes of Europe could cover with their handwriting.  The opportunity was open for an enterprising book publisher in Mainz to do away with the scribes and use machinery to put words on paper.  In this way the invention of the spinning wheel opened the way for the invention of the printing press.

All these new technologies — printing, spinning, knitting, and haymaking — have become a permanent part of the fabric of modern life.  There is no going back to the old ways.  The voices of the victims displaced by the new technologies, the scribes displaced by Gutenberg, the old-fashioned hand spinners displaced by the spinning wheel, the forest people displaced by hay, have long been silent.  We cannot measure even in retrospect the human costs and benefits of a technological revolution.  We do not possess a utilitarian calculus by which to weigh the happiness and unhappiness of the people who were involved in these case histories.  Technology assessment Is still an art rather than a science.  As Lynn White sums up the lessons learned from his examples:  “Technology assessment, if it is not to be dangerously misleading, must be based as much, if not more, on careful discussion of the imponderables in a total situation as upon the measurable elements.”


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; pp. 136-137.

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