16th and 17th Century Technology

By Tim Lambert

Technology in the 16th Century

In the 16th century guns transformed warfare. Early guns were lit by a slow match (string was soaked in saltpeter and when it was lit it smoldered). The slow match was touched to the gunpowder to ignite it. However, in the early 16th century, the wheelock was invented. A metal wheel spun against a piece or iron pyrites generating sparks that ignited the gunpowder. As a result, most cavalry stopped using lances. Instead, they carried two or three pistols each, ready to fire, and sabers.

Meanwhile, the traditional English weapon was the longbow but handguns were increasingly used. The longbow slowly went out of use during the 16th century. However, muskets took a long time to reload, and during that time the infantry needed protection from cavalry. They were protected by men with pikes (a weapon like a long spear). Cannons meant that fortifications had to be re-designed. Walls were now made to slope outwards to deflect cannonballs. Instead of towers forts and walled towns now had bastions. They were triangular sections of the wall that jutted out from the rest of the wall. They provided flanking fire. In other words, guns on the bastion could fire at approaching soldiers from the sides. Solid cannonballs (called shot) were useful for firing at walls during sieges and for firing at enemy ships.

However, for killing enemy soldiers or sailors canister or case shot was used. That was a cylindrical container filled with sharp stones or pieces of metal. When fired the cylinder burst and sprayed the enemy.

In the 16th century surgery became a little more advanced. Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) dissected some human bodies and made accurate drawings of what he saw. However, the greatest surgeon of the age was Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564). He did many dissections and realized that many of Galen’s ideas were wrong. In 1543 he published a book called The Fabric of the Human Body. It contained accurate diagrams of the human body. Vesalius’s great contribution was to base anatomy on observation, not on the authority of writers like Galen.

Another great surgeon was Ambroise Pare. In 1514 Giovanni de Vigo introduced the practice of pouring boiling water onto wounds. In 1536 during the siege of Turin pare ran out of oil. He made a mixture of egg yolk, rose oil, and turpentine and discovered it worked better than oil. Pare also designed artificial limbs.

Cartography was improved by Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) who invented the Mercator Projection in 1569. In 1593 Galileo invented a rudimentary thermometer. The microscope was also invented at the end of the 16th century.

The pocket watch was invented in 1510. The pencil was invented in 1564 and the stocking frame, a kind of knitting machine was invented in 1589. In 1596 Sir John Harrington invented a flushing lavatory with a cistern. However, the idea failed to catch on. People continued to use chamber pots or cesspits.

Technology in the 17th Century

In the 17th century technology advanced rapidly. In 1608 Hans Lippershey invented the telescope, which had a profound impact on astronomy. In 1642 Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) invented the adding machine. Then in 1643 Evangelista Torricelli (1608-1647) invented the barometer. In 1650 Otto von Guericke invented an air pump.

Meanwhile much effort went into improving weapons. In the early 17th century firearms were either matchlocks or wheel locks. A matchlock held a slow-burning match, which was touched to the powder when the trigger was pulled. With a wheel lock, a metal wheel spun against iron pyrites making sparks.

During the 17th century, both of these were gradually replaced by the flintlock which worked by hitting a piece of flint and steel-making sparks. Furthermore, in the early 17th century, the cartridge was invented. The musket ball was placed in a container, which held the right amount of gunpowder to fire it. The soldier no longer had to measure powder from a powder horn into his gun.

Apart from artillery there were two branches of an army. The cavalry was usually armed with wheel-lock pistols and sabers. The infantry consisted of men armed with muskets and those armed with pikes. A musket took a long time to reload and the soldiers were very vulnerable while they did so. Therefore they were protected by men with pikes (a weapon like a long spear). In theory, there were two musketeers to each pikeman. The pikemen usually had a steel helmet but musketeers did not usually wear armor.

In about 1680 the bayonet was invented. With a bayonet fixed a musket could be used as a weapon even if it had been fired and was not reloaded. The bayonet did away with the need for pikemen. The British army began using grenades in 1677.

During the 17th-century people became able to measure things more accurately. In 1636 William Gascoigne invented the micrometer. In 1656 Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock, which allowed people to measure time more accurately.

In 1675 Denis Papin invented the pressure cooker and at the end of the 17th century people experimented with harnessing the power of steam. In 1698 Thomas Savery made the first steam engine.