Brits at their Best.com: British History, Culture & Sports, History of Freedom, Heroes, Inventors

THE INGENIOUS TIMELINE

14th Century

Man shaving

William of Ockham develops a razor-sharp rule that says the simplest explanation with the least assumptions is probably the right one. Ockham's Razor, also called the Law of Parsimony, underpins all of science.

Photo: imbarney22@stockphoto.com

SHARP THINKING,
SOARING CONSTRUCTION,
BLAST FURNACES AND CUTLERY

It was a difficult time. Rumours of death were heard, then local people fell ill, their skins turned black, huge swellings appeared on their bodies, they coughed blood, and died. Across Europe, as much as 60% of the population of 14th-century Europe was killed in the Black Death.

1300s WILLIAM OF OCKHAM SHARPENS SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT WITH HIS 'RAZOR'

A student of Duns Scotus, William of Ockham argues that concrete experience serves as a basis for knowledge. To those who claim that all knowledge must be based on Scripture, he points to God's world. To understand that world he posits Ockham's Razor, the idea that the most economical explanation is usually the best. A modern example is the elegant theory that E=mc2.

A Franciscan, William travels from England to Avignon. He believes in simplicity of life for the followers of Christ, but this notion irritates the schismatic Pope ruling in Avignon. William flees to Munich, where he attacks the concept of papal power as inimical to Christianity. Along with Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus he is regarded as one of the three major thinkers in mediaeval philosophy and an outstanding political theorist and logician.

1325 MAKING SPINNING SPIN WITH THE JERSEY WHEEL

For millennia sheep have been sheared, and wool has been cleaned of its fats, carded, and spun. Spinning the wool – turning the strands of sheep hair into strands that can be woven into soft, warm clothing – requires the use of a wheel. Brits invent the Jersey Wheel to speed up the spinning of wool and flax. The Jersey wheel is large, is and operated while standing. The invention makes a bundle for Brits.

1325-1350 EARLIEST KNOWN MUSIC WRITTEN FOR KEYBOARD

The Abbey of Robertsbridge's library contained some very early keyboard works (now in the British Museum). The world's earliest known music written for a keyboard instrument is a fragment of two leaves known as the Robertsbridge Codex.

Two man and falling volley ball

The Mertonians have a ball with the laws of motion, and prove the law of falling bodies before Galileo.

Photo by barsik@istockphoto.com

1330s MERTONIANS DISCOVER MEAN SPEED THEOREM (THE LAW OF FALLING BODIES)

A group of friends studying at Oxford University’s Merton College, the Mertonians investigate logical problems and apply them to kinematics, the motion of objects. Called the "Calculators," they include Thomas Bradwardine, William Heytesbury and Richard of Wallingford. They discover the Mean Speed Theorem (the Law of Falling Bodies) before Galileo, who is usually given credit for it, and their work was quickly diffused into France, Italy, and other parts of Europe.

The law states that a body travelling at constant velocity will cover the same distance in the same time as an accelerated body if its velocity is half the final speed of the accelerated body.

The Mertonians' logical work inspires experimental and practical science because they assign quantitative properties to capacities and qualities. These mathematical quantities have ruled Western science ever since. Partly as a result, Richard of Wallingford decides to build an accurate clock.

1330s RICHARD OF WALLINGFORD BUILDS BEST CLOCK IN 300 YEARS

Most of us can recall our dismay when a watch we thought was on time was slow and we were late for a date. Inspired by slightly different considerations, Richard of Wallingford decides to build the first clock that tells time accurately.

The son of a blacksmith who lost his father when he was ten, Richard was adopted by the local abbey and sent to Oxford where, excelling at logic and mathematics, he became one of the Mertonian Calculators. Later he is elected Abbot of St. Alban, but becomes ill, perhaps with leprosy, and retires.

Though weakened by disease Richard maintains a keen interest in theories with practical results, and builds one of the first weight-driven mechanical clocks, the Albion (the ancient name for England) which shows the seasons, the passing of the hours, and the courses of the moon and planets. Forged in iron by a skilled blacksmith, no clock can match it for accuracy for the next 300 years.

1340s BRADWARDINE MATHEMATICALLY ESTABLISHES GEOMETRIC RATIO OF FORCE AND RESISTANCE

Working for the Edward III as a diplomat, Thomas Bradwardine continues to develop the theories he explored with the Mertonians at Oxford. In particular he shows that force and resistance are related exponentially in a geometrical ratio, rather than by a simple arithmetical difference. (To produce twice the velocity, the proportion of force to resistance must be squared, not doubled, and cubed for triple the velocity and so on.)

Bradwardine also postulates exponential growth and the "infinite void" before dying of the plague.

1350s MONKS PRAY, BREED SHEEP, AND PRODUCE IRON AND BOOKS

Monasteries develop the art and technology of farming in Europe. This is no small task since forests have to be cut down, and ploughs have to be strong enough to withstand the heavy soil, but they have the land, the men, and the discipline to tackle that project, and others.

At Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire, the monks refine the technology of the blast furnace, which uses blasts of air and high temperatures to melt large quantities of iron out of iron ore. The blast furnaces developed in the 14th century will establish the technology for modern furnaces. With the iron the monks make axes, hammers, harnesses for horses and oxen, and ploughs. With their land now producing sufficient food, there is more time to write books, and read.

Gloucester Cathedral's beautiful fan vaulting

At Gloucester Cathedral (the modern film set for Harry Potter’s school, Hogwarts) creative masons create Perpendicular architecture and the elaborate and imaginative beauties of fan vaulting (pictured here) and lierne roof vaulting.

Photo: Uchiyama Tomoyuki @failteweb.com

1337-1351 PERPENDICULAR-STYLE ARCHITECTURE RISES OUT OF MURDER

King Edward II is reported to have died a grisly death in 1327 after he is deposed by his wife and her lover. Alternatively he may have died in exile in Ireland. However, as he is supposed to be dead, 'Edward' is buried, and his young son is crowned King. Once he is buried, the murdered king attracts the popularity he noticeably lacked during his life. His resting place in Gloucester Cathedral becomes a shrine.

With money pouring in from pilgrims, Gloucester Cathedral has to expand. The artist-engineers from the Severn Valley who work under Abbot Wigmore's direction are inspired. They remake Gloucester Cathedral (then known as St. Peter's Abbey) in the soaring Perpendicular style. With new advances in structural support systems, they create the beautiful fan vaulting of the ceilings, and construct vast, transparent windows as large as tennis courts.

To build the Perpendicular style they use a system of prefabrication. Carving the tracery, columns, and vaulting at quarries, they number the stones, and assemble them on site. Happily the cathedral survives the ravages of Henry VIII because he does not wish to disturb his ancestor's tomb.

1370s SHEFFIELD PRODUCES CUTLERY; CHAUCER DEPENDS ON THEIR KNIFE

In a painting, Chaucer is wearing a Sheffield knife on his belt. It is probably his personal knife and a prized possession. He would have used it to cut his meat when he ate, and may have used it to protect himself when, on more than one occasion, he was attacked by robbers. In the Reeve's Tale, Chaucer mentions that the salacious pilgrim is carrying a small Sheffield blade in his hose and that no one dares to mess with him.

Sheffield knives had been in production since 1297, but they became famous for their quality around this time. Sheffield had iron ore, the coal for smelting and forging, and the streams to drive grinding wheels. All it needed were the craftsmen to produce fine blades, and it acquires those in spades.

Hammerbeam roof at Westminster

Hammerbeam roof.
Built at Westminster 1395-1399 (shown here in 1896) it looks almost modern with its 'exposed' construction.

1390s BRITS INVENT HAMMERBEAM ROOFS TO SPAN VAST SPACES

Brits throw a great hammerbeam roof across Westminster Hall without needing the usual rows of columns or stone vaulting. Under the direction of master carpenter Hugh Herland, they use a series of short horizontal and vertical oak beams rising in steps from the tops of the walls to the centre of the hall ceiling. This way they distribute the ceiling's massive weight to the sides. Hammerbeam roofs combine practicality and magnificence. The mighty hammerbeams that support the roof divide the ceiling into compartments, and are often brilliantly carved, sometimes with painted angels.

Westminster Hall, the site of great banquets and public occasions, has the largest hammerbeam roof in England, and perhaps the first. Hammerbeam roofs can also be seen in churches in eastern England and at Hampton Court.

To 15th Century

 

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass