Innumerable as the Starrs of Night,
Or Starrs of Morning,
Dew-drops, which the Sun
on every leaf and every flouer
NGC3132 ©
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,
— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all
ye need to know.

E = M

Energy is eternal delight.
William Blake

Impearls: 2004-02-01 Archive

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.

Impearls: 2004-02-01 Archive

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.”


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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