Triumph of the Innovation Economy- Part 4

by Rowan Gibson

Was innovation still alive during Europe’s difficult “Dark Ages?” And could China have been on the brink of the Industrial Revolution four hundred years before the West? What does history teach us about innovation power and economic growth in the Medieval era?

Human Creativity and the History of the World

Part 4

In Parts 1 to 3 of this series of articles, I debunked the notion that innovation is just the management fad du jour by tracing the immeasurably huge impact of human creativity on the whole history of civilization. So far we have looked at the world-changing innovations of ancient peoples – the Natufians, Ubaidians, Sumerians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians, as well as the classical Western civilizations of antiquity – Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman. These examples stand testimony to the clear relationship between creative power and economic power throughout the ages.

Join me now on my continuing journey through time as we find out what happened when innovation entered the medieval era in Europe, and why neither the Islamic world nor China were able to leverage their remarkable innovativeness to dominate the world.

Innovation in the Dark Ages

When the Roman Empire finally disintegrated in the 5th and 6th century A.D. and gave way to medieval times, economic growth in Europe, as well as many other forms of progress, effectively came to a grinding halt.

In fact, in several respects – literacy, commerce, short and long distance communications, infrastructure, law enforcement – things went decidedly backward. This illustrates what happens in a cultural environment where innovation is considered of little importance to the world, or even actively suppressed. A quick glance back at this period of history would suggest that medieval attention was focused more on burning “witches” and “heretics”, and on maintaining the religious status quo, than it was on technological, societal, or economic advancement.

However, even in these aptly named “Dark Ages” in Europe, the spark of human creativity was not completely extinguished. For example, the invention of the heavy plow (or Carmen), mounted on wheels and hooked to a team of oxen, as well as the technique of crop rotation, revolutionized medieval agriculture.

Waterpower was fully utilized for all manner of industries thanks to the development of bigger and better waterwheels, and the first European windmills appeared in the 12th century (probably inspired by a similar invention in the Islamic world) and spread very quickly. Nailed horse shoes and new horse harnesses allowed for the widespread use of horse power for agriculture and commercial land transportation, while the development of canal locks changed the face of water transportation.

There were also advances in shipbuilding, making it easier to carry heavy cargoes – both at sea and inland on rivers and canals – at relatively low cost. Then there were other inventions that impacted daily life in various ways, such as butter, distilled liquors, improved window glass, crank-driven grindstones, skis, and more importantly eyeglasses, which originated in Italy in the 13th century and eventually became popular throughout Europe and beyond.

Unfortunately, the penetration and diffusion of new ideas and technologies became painfully slow in Western Europe during the Medieval period, and sometimes it took decades or even centuries for old, outdated techniques to be replaced by inventions or methods that were demonstrably more effective.

Achievements in the Islamic World

Between the eighth and the twelfth centuries, anyone who was asked about Europe’s cultural, technological and economic center of gravity would have undoubtedly pointed to the Mediterranean region – and in particular the Islamic world of Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East.

At the time, the Muslim world was arguably the most sophisticated and cultured society on earth.

Indeed, the technological achievements of this society were impressive. One was their use of the lateen sail – a triangular, fore-and-aft sail – which enabled ships to tack into the wind, giving them far higher performance than the ancient square-rigged vessels of the Romans. This was a breakthrough for medieval commerce. They were also the first to use a tidal mill – a water mill driven by the ebb and flood of the tide – and were pioneers of the windmill. They introduced paper into the Middle East and Europe, apparently having learned how to make paper from captured Chinese workmen when they overthrew the city of Samarkand in 753 AD.

In around 793 AD they opened their first paper factory in Baghdad, and by 1000 AD bound paper books were common across the entire Islamic world. Then there were substantial advances in textile and leather production, as well as in chemical technology.

The latter led to the Muslims inventing alkalis, and also producing naphla, a flammable petroleum product similar to kerosene. Their glass and ceramic products, as well as their perfume and acid products, were of a far higher quality than any previously known. For centuries, Muslim mechanical engineering was also far ahead of the West, and their metallurgy produced steel swords of legendary fame. One of their other specialties was confectionery, having learned how to grow and refine sugar.

A closer examination of Islamic innovation, however, reveals that Muslim society was far better at adapting and perfecting previously existing technologies than it was at generating new technologies of its own.

Then, around the end of the twelfth century, the Islamic world seemed to run out of ideas that it could borrow from others, and soon found itself in state of rapid decline, both in terms of technological supremacy and economic momentum. That was when Western Europe began to move from the medieval period into the Renaissance era, and to take the lead in its ability to produce and diffuse important new innovations, eventually fuelling its longer-term economic growth.

What happened to China’s innovation power?

One of the great puzzles of economic history is why China didn’t come to dominate the world six or seven hundred years ago. At that point in time, the Chinese possessed an innovation power that was almost without equal.

Indeed, economic historian Eric Jones argues that “China came within a hair’s breadth of industrializing in the fourteenth century.” Think of the implications this would have had for humanity. Imagine how advanced our world could now be if the industrial revolution had taken place four centuries earlier. Yet, strangely, this never happened. On the contrary, from about 1400 AD Chinese technological progress dramatically slowed, and ultimately came to what Harvard scholar David Landes called a “magnificent dead end.”

It’s stunning to consider some of the incredible innovations that boosted China’s economic growth while Western Europe was still struggling through its “Dark Ages.”

Sophisticated hydraulic engineering, the introduction of the iron plow, the use of new fertilizers, and advances in veterinary medicine revolutionized Chinese agriculture. China led the West by at least 1500 years in the production of iron (based on the use of blast furnaces), as well as steel. They were also far more advanced in their use of spinning wheels in the textile industry, which is what brought them to the brink of industrialization. In AD 725 Yi Xing and Liang Lingzan created the first mechanical clock in China, and in 1086 AD the Chinese polymath Su Sung used the escapement mechanism invented by his predecessors to design and construct the most accurate and complex water clock ever built, long before Europeans knew anything about mechanical clock making.

Around 960 AD the Chinese invented the compass. Their ship building technology – ocean going junks with multiple masts, trapezoidal sails, fore-and-aft rigging, bulkhead construction and a stern post rudder – also led Europe and other civilizations by several centuries.

As we all remember from our school history lessons, it was the Chinese who invented paper, but we may not be aware that it happened over a thousand years before this invention came to be used in the West.

In fact, the Chinese used paper not just for writing but also for manufacturing such things as clothing and shoes, as well as for wallpaper, toilet paper, and paper money. Then there is printing, which began with Chinese block printing in the late seventh century and moved on to porcelain moveable type in 1045 AD, over 350 years before Gutenberg was born (the Koreans used metal moveable type by about 1240 AD).

In addition, the Chinese came up with the idea of the wheelbarrow at least 900 years before it occurred to Europeans. What is today still called China Ware – porcelain ceramics – was first produced in the seventh and eighth centuries in China and became one of the most significant forms of Chinese art and décor.  The Chinese chemical industry also produced explosives, lacquers, pharmaceuticals, and insecticides. Their medical practices – including acupuncture – were far ahead of the West’s. They developed the modern horse collar over a millennium before this invention came to Europe, and they were using crossbows centuries before this device was ever seen in Western warfare. In their daily lives, the Chinese also had matches, umbrellas, effective toothbrushes, and playing cards, before anyone else.

Despite all of this, China’s technological prowess began to wane from about the fifteenth century onward, and then to abruptly decline relative to the West, leading to long-term stagnation in the Chinese economy.

The precise reasons for this are still an enigma for economic historians. Perhaps it was because the Chinese state shifted its stance toward innovation – before 1400 China’s officials played a central role in the generation and diffusion of new ideas, but after this date they seemed to turn their backs on technological advances, no longer offering any state support to inventors and innovators. Indeed, the Chinese bureaucracy began to actively resist change and progress, preferring instead to preserve the status quo.

What a powerful lesson this teaches modern governments (as well as corporate leaders) about their impact on innovation and economic growth in the cultures they lead.

So how did Europe come to take the global lead between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries and beyond? What could account for such a pivotal turning point in economic history? And what exactly were the cultural and constitutional conditions that led to the triumph of what we now call the “innovation economy”? Find out in the next article in this series.

Continued in Parts 5 – 7 of this series.– find series here

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© Rowan Gibson 2015. All rights reserved.

Rowan Gibson’s brand new book The Four lenses of Innovation examines the thinking patterns or perspectives that have been catalysts for breakthrough innovation throughout human history, and shows you how to use these perspectives to infuse creativity into your own organization. Order your copy right here.

Rowan Gibson ( is recognized as one of the world’s foremost thought leaders on innovation. He is the internationally bestselling author of 3 major books, an award-winning keynote speaker in 60 countries, and a cofounder of Innovation Excellence. His new book is The Four lenses of Innovation. On Twitter he is @RowanGibson.