Global Networks of Innovation: China, Islam and the West, 1100-1700

We live in a knowledge economy, where scientific knowledge and technological know-how are keys to economic prosperity and cultural fertility. We are also witnessing the end of a long period in which superior science and technology has played a key role in propelling the West to global hegemony. Yet for most of recorded history, Europe was technologically relatively backward. As suggested by the term ‘Silk Road’ for the network of commercial corridors linking China with the Levant, East Asia was far in advance of the West in many areas of technology, including the ‘four great inventions’ which would help power the rise of the West: paper, printing, gunpowder, and the compass. The mediation of many of these inventions from east to west was only one respect in which the West lagged behind the Islamic world.

Although the ‘Rise of the West’ is generally treated as an early modern topic, many of its technological roots unquestionably lie in the long-term exchange and development of technologies and technical skills. For this reason, this crucial topic cannot be studied properly without a broad chronological as well as geographical canvass. In the case of Europe, while some of the technological developments that contributed both to increasing per capita wealth and to imperial expansion were the product of indigenous innovation, many others were transmitted to Europe from Asia. The European focus of the paper treats both the eastern origins of many of these technologies and their impacts in Asia and throughout the world.

Although many of the topics of this paper are framed with reference to specific transformative technologies, its main focus is not with technological innovation per se so much as the broader cultural preconditions and outcomes of scientific and technological development. On the one hand, this means focusing on the social, cultural, political, and religious contexts which fostered specific technical innovations, and which made other cultures impervious or receptive to them. On the other, it means focusing equal attention on the capacity of some technologies to transform aspects of some societies and not others. The secondary bibliography concentrates on the ways in which individual technologies, arising from particular circumstances in individual regions, have spread to impact on global history as a whole.

This broad context raises the key questions to be pursued in this paper. Why did some globally significant technologies originate in Asia centuries before they reached the West? How, when, and by what routes did they move westward? Why did some of these technologies only show their potential to change entire societies when they reached the West? What technological innovations were indigenous to the West, and how do we account for Europe’s new-found technological inventiveness during this period? Key topics will also be used to introduce students to broader debates in general historiography and global history. These include the print revolution, the military revolution, the Scientific Revolution, the ‘Needham Question’, the ‘Rise of the West’, 'the Great Divergence', incipient globalization, and even 'Big History'.