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Science and Technology

The technological innovation of the Renaissance era began with the invention of the printing press. Although the printing press, a mechanical device for printing multiple copies of a text on sheets of paper, was first invented in China, it was reinvented in the West by a German goldsmith and eventual printer, Johann Gutenberg, in the 1450s. Prior to Gutenberg's invention, each piece of metal type for printing presses had to be individually carved by hand. Gutenberg developed molds that allowed for the mass production of individual pieces of metal type. This allowed a widespread use of movable type, where each character is a separate block, in mirror image, and these blocks are assembled into a frame to form text. Because of his molds, an entire upper case and lower case alphabet set could be made much more quickly than if they were individually hand carved. Gutenberg is also credited with the first use of an oil-based ink. He printed on both vellum and paper, the latter having been introduced into Europe somewhat earlier from China by way of the Arabs, who had a paper mill in operation in Baghdad as early as 794.

Prior to the invention of the printing press, books in Europe were copied mainly in monasteries, or (from the 13th century) in commercial scriptoria, where scribes wrote them out by hand. Accordingly, books were a scarce resource. While it might take someone a year or more to hand copy a Bible, with the Gutenberg press it was possible to create several hundred copies a year. The rise of printed works was not immediately popular, however. Not only did the papal court contemplate making printing presses an industry requiring a license from the Catholic Church (an idea rejected in the end), but as early as the 15th century, some nobles refused to have printed books in their libraries, thinking that to do so would sully their valuable handcopied manuscripts. Similar resistance was later encountered in much of the Islamic world, where calligraphic traditions were extremely important, and also in the Far East. Despite this resistance, Gutenberg's printing press spread rapidly, and within thirty years of its invention in 1453, towns and cities across Europe had functional printing presses. Johann Heynlin, for example, introduced the first press to Paris in 1470. The city of Tübingen saw its first printed work, a commentary by Paul Scriptoris, in 1498. It has been suggested that this rapid expansion shows not only a higher level of industry (fueled by the high-quality European paper mills that had been opening over the previous century) than expected, but also a significantly higher level of literacy than has often been estimated.

The discovery and establishment of the printing of books with movable type marks a paradigm shift in the way information was transferred in Europe. The impact of printing is comparable to the development of language, and the invention of the alphabet, as far as its effects on the society. They also led to the establishment of a community of scientists (previously scientists were mostly isolated) who could easily communicate their discoveries, bringing on the scientific revolution. Also, although early texts were printed in Latin, books were soon produced in common European vernacular, leading to the decline of the Latin language. It can also be argued that printing changed the way Europeans thought. With the older illuminated manuscripts, the emphasis was on the images and the beauty of the page. Early printed works emphasized principally the text and the line of argument. In the sciences, the introduction of the printing press marked a move from the medieval language of metaphors to the adoption of the scientific method. In general, knowledge came closer to the hands of the people, since printed books could be sold for a fraction of the cost of illuminated manuscripts. There were also more copies of each book available, so that more people could discuss them. Within a half century, the entire library of "classical" knowledge had been printed on the new presses.

Other inventions that followed include the cast-iron pipe, portable clock, rifle barrel, shotgun, screwdriver and wrench. Additionally, many great thinkers of this era developed and introduced concepts that form the basis of modern scientific theory. For example, Galileo Galilei, an Italian physicist, astronomer, and philosopher, made significant improvements to the telescope, as well developed a variety of astronomical observations, the first law of motion, the second law of motion. He has been referred to as the "father of modern astronomy", as the "father of modern physics", and as "father of science". His experimental work is widely considered complementary to the writings of Francis Bacon in establishing the modern scientific method.

In addition, Nicolaus Copernicus keenly observed that the Sun appeared to be at rest in the center of the universe. His observations were later developed and published as "On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres" and commonly known as Copernican Theory. The book marks the beginning of the shift away from a geocentric (and anthropocentric) universe with the Earth at its center. Copernicus held that the Earth is another planet revolving around the fixed sun once a year, and turning on its axis once a day. He arrived at the correct order of the known planets and explained the precession of the equinoxes correctly by a slow change in the position of the Earth's rotational axis. He also gave a clear account of the cause of the seasons: that the Earth's axis is not perpendicular to the plane of its orbit. He added another motion to the Earth, by which the axis is kept pointed throughout the year at the same place in the heavens; since Galileo Galilei, it has been recognized that for the Earth not to point to the same place would have been a motion. The Copernican system can be summarized in seven propositions, as Copernicus himself collected them in a Compendium of De revolutionibus that was found and published in 1878. These are: (1) There is no one center in the universe; (2) The Earth's center is not the center of the universe; (3) The center of the universe is near the sun; (4) The distance from the Earth to the sun is imperceptible compared with the distance to the stars; (5) The rotation of the Earth accounts for the apparent daily rotation of the stars; (6) The apparent annual cycle of movements of the sun is caused by the Earth revolving around the sun; and (7) The apparent retrograde motion of the planets is caused by the motion of the Earth, from which one observes.

The Renaissance period also ushered in a grand age of exploration. The trail-blazing expeditions of adventurers such as Ferdinand Magellan, Jacques Cartier and Sir Walter Raleigh paved the way for the historic journey of the Mayflower in 1620. Perhaps the most famous explorer of the period was Christopher Columbus, who embarked on his first sea voyage at the age of fourteen. Like most learned men of his time, Columbus knew that the world was round and theorized that a ship could eventually reach the Far East from the opposite direction. For an entire decade, Columbus approached Portuguese and Spanish monarchs for a grant to explore possible trade routes between Asia and Europe. After initially rejecting his proposal, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella acquiesced after the Moors had been successfully expelled from Spain in 1492. Columbus promised to bring back gold, spices, and silks from the Far East; to spread Christianity; and to lead an expedition to China. On August 3, 1492, Columbus' fleet of three ships, the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, set sail from southern Spain. The historic journey allowed Columbus to become the first navigator to sail across the Atlantic Ocean and reach the Americas.