The civilization of ancient China produced a wide array of innovations in science and technology which preceded the rest of the world by centuries and sometimes by millennia. This essay examines some of these remarkable inventions and discoveries. Chinese inventors developed numerous mechanical implements, engineering advances, and new substances such as gunpowder, which took centuries to spread to or be replicated in other parts of the world. Furthermore, this essay explores the reasons for ancient China’s lack of systematic progress or an industrial revolution despite the presence there of numerous inventive thinkers.
Beginning in the 14th Century BC, the Chinese developed a decimal, or base ten system of recording numbers. This is one of the earliest such systems known.
In the first century AD, Chinese scholars compiled a volume of mathematics, Jin Zhang Suanshu,(Arithmetic in Nine Chapters). Mathematician Zu Chongzhi (429-500) calculated the first 12 digits of the value of pi, while his son, Zu Gengzhi, updated the Jin Zhang Suanshu and determined the correct formula for the volume of a sphere, V= (pi/4)d^3, where d is the diameter.
Paper was invented by Cai Lun, a scientist at the Imperial Court in 105 AD. It was produced from bamboo and hemp fibers dissolved in water situated in a mold. When the water was drained and the mixture dried, the first genuine design of paper appeared. The Chinese also developed a precursor to the first paper currency in the world, printed in the Ninth Century AD in order to lighten the load carried by tax collectors.
The first methods for developing raw iron into workable material with the capacity to be crafted into weapons and ornaments were developed in the 4th Century BC, when the Chinese became able to lower iron’s melting temperature by adding phosphorus to the heated metal.
In the 2nd Century BC, this technology served to bring about the manufacture of steel by mixing wrought and cast iron at high temperatures or draining the carbon component from cast iron.
Invented in China during the 1st Century BC, A chain pump consists of a chain attached to itself at the ends, which carries along it pallets of raw materials, such as water or sand, which are elevated to impressive heights up to about four meters.
The Chinese were the first civilization in the world to plant crops in rows, beginning in the 6th Century BC, in order to obtain rapid crop growth without the crops’ mutual interference. Chinese farmers accomplished this 2200 years before any other culture.
Beginning in the 3rd Century BC, horses were utilized in China to haul loads on farms using an upgraded harness with a collar and chest strap (known a trace harness or horse collar) , which reduced the attachment’s burden on the animal and permitted a single horse to move a ton and a half of material.
The 3rd Century BC also saw the advent of the moldboard plow, or kuan, the design of which included a sharp center for digging into the ground and gradually-sloped wings at the side in order to discard excess soil and ease the friction on the plow.
The wheelbarrow was invented in the 1st Century BC and enabled Chinese farmers to transport massive loads over vast distances with ease.
Gunpowder was invented in China during the 8th Century AD as a mixture of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter and used primarily for fireworks. The fireworks were launched from rockets made of hollowed bamboo tubes. These rockets were lighted through use of matches, invented in the 6th Century AD, carved of pinewood and coated with sulfur. Other civilizations borrowed this aspect and discovered its military utility.
In 1150, fireworks were elaborated as a result of the first multi-staged rockets, where several smaller tubes were attacked to main meter-tall stick, which were ignited in mid-air after the main rocket’s energy became depleted.
During the 1st Century BC, the Chinese discovered methods to drill some 1.5 kilometers into the Earth’s surface. A derrick was constructed, followed by a small shaft that extended until the Earth’s layer of hard rock was reached. Then a cast iron drill would be lowered with bamboo cables, after which the process would often consume years before any actual fuels were located.
Invented in the 8th Century AD, the mechanical clock rapidly spread to other regions of the world. Chinese designs were crucial to inspiring European clock inventors such as Pope Sylvester II. The Chinese mechanical clock was powered by falling water or mercury, which then transmitted the energy to a chain-drive.
Segmental Arch Bridge
A segmental arch, invented by engineer Li Ch’un in the 7th Century AD, consists of only a small fragment of a circle instead of earlier semicircular arches. Ch’un constructed his first bridge over the Chiao Shui River in 610, which was notably lighter, more durable, and more material-efficient than earlier bridges. It is still in frequent use today.
A belt-drive (or driving belt) was attached around wheels to ensure smooth transition of mechanical energy between them. Invented in China during the 1st Century BC, the belt-drive was applied extensively to silk manufacture and spinning machines.
The belt-drive made possible the invention of the spinning wheel in 1270, since it provided sufficient cover and attachment for a rimless construction such as a spinning wheel, where a network of threads replaces the rim.
Movable character blocks were invented by Bi Sheng in 1045. A method for arranging and printing pages in mass quantities was devised. However, this was not efficient when applied to the Chinese language, which possesses over 5000 characters, and thus could not spur on the same printing revolution as that which occurred in Europe.
The first magnetic compass was invented in China during the 3rd Century AD, utilizing a piece of magnetite (an ore of iron) which was heated and aligned in a North/South position, afterward being contained in a bowl of water where it floated on a piece of reed. This was integral to early 2nd millennium Chinese explorations in the Indian Ocean.
Other Noteworthy Advances
The Chinese were the first to develop a kite in the 4th Century BC. Craftsmen like Kungshu P’an possessed mastery to the extent of developing kites that stayed afloat for three days. These kites had military applications as well, carrying messages to isolated troop formations on the battlefield.
Commissioned by the imperial government in 132 AD, mathematician and cartographer Chang Heng devised the first seismograph, which allowed fairly accurate forecasts of earthquakes, leading to more efficient economic planning.
The Yellow Emperor’s Manual of Corporeal Medicine, composed in the 2nd Century BC, contains an advanced treatise on the circulation of blood. This was published fifteen centuries before William Harvey developed a work of comparable caliber in the West.
Why the Ancient Chinese Failed to Achieve Routine Technological Progress
Despite numerous ingenious technological innovations throughout its history, China failed to develop an industrial revolution and a routine theory like the Scientific Method to render inventions and discoveries systematic and not merely the spontaneous products of ingenious minds.
Ancient China was a generally stagnant society which, despite the presence of numerous brilliant thinkers, failed to achieve any regular technological progress until the late 19th century. So dramatic was this stagnation that it led Victor Hugo to compare China to “a fetus in a jar.” While it witnessed numerous promising technological developments in their embryonic stages, ancient China failed to harness these developments into a consistent advance.
The reason for this unfortunate lack of progress was above all institutional. Although the earlier Han and Tang dynasties among others were receptive to advancements and scientific practice, the Ming, following the defeat of the Mongols, isolated China from the remainder of the world and focused on civil stability to a greater extent than technological progress.
The heavily Confucian paradigm of the era from 1368 to 1911 focused more on adaptation to nature and the arts rather than the sciences. Scholars were trained in extensive law memorization rather than further studies of the external world. This caused China to lag behind the West, and contact with the Occident was required to re-establish its rich technological tradition.
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