Age of Invention: Wonder of the World

The technological marvel of the age, then and now.

What is today’s technological wonder of the world? We might point to something like the smartphone - the supercomputers that many of us carry around in our pockets - or perhaps the World Wide Web. Two decades ago, perhaps many of us would have cited Concorde (RIP). A few decades earlier, perhaps space flight. But what would our more distant ancestors have said?

In the late sixteenth century some commentators began to boast that “this our age may seem not only to contend with the ancients, but also in many goodly inventions of art and wit, far to exceed them.” Having once been in awe of the classical world (you can read my post on why, here), commentators cited the invention of gunpowder, the printing press, and the magnetic compass as achievements of “the moderns”. They were especially impressed, too, by new feats of mechanical ingenuity.

One English author in in the 1570s said he had “heard credible report” (suggesting it would have seemed incredible to his readers), of an engine by which the teenage King of France had lifted an impossibly heavy weight off the ground. The author described it as functioning much like the mechanism for drawing a crossbow - presumably some kind of winch, perhaps assisted by pulleys.

And as for the mechanical marvel of the western world, this was apparently Strasbourg’s new cathedral clock, replete with moving statues, complex musical chimes, and various indicators to show the movement of the planets, to predict eclipses, and, of course, to show the time. “Who has not heard of the brazen cock in Strasbourg town,” wrote another English author in 1588, “which crows aloud three times a day; wherein the heavenly orbs do move alone?”

Fast forward to the late eighteenth century, and I imagine many people today would guess that the steam engine was the new mechanical marvel. Half right. For some British commentators in 1786, “the largest and most useful apparatus modern times can boast of” was the brand new Paris water supply, put together by Jacques-Constantin Périer. A few low-pressure steam engines, of the kind recently invented by James Watt, pumped water from the River Seine through some 6 miles of cast iron pipe (some reports say 40), made by the industrialist John “Iron Mad” Wilkinson, which then fed a network of internal lead or wooden pipes for private houses and public fountains. It was a British-made marvel, but assembled by Périer in France. Amazingly, much of the machinery was transported between the two countries even while they were at war, and both governments provided passports for the key players to travel to and fro, with Britain even sometimes allowing the export (though they had to do a bit of smuggling all the same).

Yet few of us today have ever heard of Périer’s Paris water supply or Strasbourg’s clock (even if an eighteenth-century version of the clock still delights a few tourists to the cathedral). Périer potentially has an excuse: Paris would soon be wracked by revolution. But then again, technology advances and the wonder of yesterday becomes the mundane of today. Something has to continue to stand out to maintain its wonder. Look at the traditional seven wonders of the ancient world, and I guarantee that fewer people have heard of the long-gone Mausoleum at Halicarnassus than the still-standing Pyramids of Giza.

And perhaps the technologies that provoke widespread awe are not really our most important achievements anyway. It’s fun to look at what was considered wonderous in the past, but underappreciated throughout human history are the multitudes of marginal improvements that provide us with the mundane: the hidden but ingenious processes that give us our everyday food, items, transport, buildings, and health.

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