A Selected History of Science and Invention in China.
A common stereotype is that the Chinese traditionally lack scientific
and technological ability, although, somehow, they stumbled upon
papermaking, printing, gunpowder, and the mariner's compass. Modern
Chinese, themselves, sometimes are surprised to realize that modern
agriculture, shipping, astronomical observatories, decimal mathematics,
paper money, umbrellas, wheelbarrows, multi-stage rockets, brandy and
whiskey, the game of chess, and much more, all came from China. This
information has been compiled by the work of Joseph Needham and his
collegues in a study of ancient Chinese books on science, technology and
medicine. His research has been published in Science and Civilisation
The horse collar
The moldboard plow
The helicopter rotor and the propeller
The decimal system
Circulation of the blood
Brandy and Whiskey
The rocket and multi-staged rockets
The Horse Collar: China. Third Century BCE. About the fourth
century BCE the Chinese devised a harness with a breast strap known as
the trace harness, modified approximately one hundred later into the
collar harness. Unlike the throat-and-girth harness used in the West,
which choked a horse and reduced its efficiency (it took two horses to
haul a half a ton), the collar harness allowed a single horse to haul a
ton and a half. The trace harness arrived in Europe in the sixth century
and made its way across Europe by the eighth century.
The Wheelbarrow: China. First Century BCE. Wheelbarrows did not
exist in Europe before the eleventh or twelfth century (the earliest
known Western depiction is in a window at Chartres Cathedral, dated
around 1220 CE). Descriptions of the wheelbarrow in China refer to first
century BCE, and the oldest surviving picture, a frieze relief from a
tomb-shrine in Szechuan province, dates from about 118 CE.
The Moldboard Plow: China. Third Centrury BCE. Called kuan,
these ploughshares were made of malleable cast iron. They had an
advanced design, with a central ridge ending in a sharp point to cut the
soil and wings which sloped gently up towards the center to throw the
soil off the plow and reduce friction. When brought to Holland in the
17th Century, these plows began the Agricultural Revolution.
Paper Money: China. Ninth Century. Its original name was 'flying
money' because it was so light it could blow out of one's hand. As
'exchange certificates' used by merchants, paper money was quickly
adopted by the government for forwarding tax payments. Real paper money,
used as a medium of exchange and backed by deposited cash (a Chinese
term for metal coins), apparently came into use in the tenth century.
The first Western money was issued in Sweden in 1661. America followed
in 1690, France in 1720, England in 1797, and Germany not until 1806.
Cast Iron: China. Fourth Century BCE. By having good refractory
clays for the construction of blast furnace walls, and the discovery of
how to reduce the temperature at which iron melts by using phosphorus,
the Chinese were able cast iron into ornamental and functional shapes.
Coal, used as a fuel, was placed around elongated crucibles containing
iron ore. This expertise allowed the production of pots and pans with
thin walls. With the development of annealing in the third century,
ploughshares, longer swords, and even buildings were eventually made of
iron. In the West, blast furnaces are known to have existed in
Scandinavia by the late eighth century, but cast iron was not widely
available in Europe before 1380.
The Helicopter Rotor and the Propeller: China. Fourth Century CE.
By the fourth century a common toy in China was the helicopter top,
called the 'bamboo dragonfly.' The top was an axis with a cord wound
round it, and with blades sticking out from the axis and set at an
angle. One pulled the cord, and the top went climbing in the air. Sir
George Cayley, the father of modern aeronautics, studied the Chinese
helicopter top in 1809. The helicopter top in China led to nothing but
amusement and pleasure, but fourteen hundred years later it was to be
one of the key elements in the birth of modern aeronautics in the West.
The Decimal System: China. Fourteenth Century BCE. An example of
how the Chinese used the decimal system may be seen in an inscription
from the thirteenth century BCE, in which '547 days' is written 'Five
hundred plus four decades plus seven of days.' The Chinese wrote with
characters instead of an alphabet. When writing with a Western alphabet
of more than nine letters, there is a temptation to go on with words
like eleven. With Chinese characters, ten is ten-blank and eleven is
ten-one (zero was left as a blank space: 405 is 'four blank five'). This
was much easier than inventing a new character for each number (imagine
having to memorize an enormous number of characters just to read the
date!). Having a decimal system from the beginning was a big advantage
in making mathematical advances. The first evidence of decimals in
Europe is in a Spanish manuscript of 976 CE.
The Seismograph: China. Second Century CE. China has always been
plagued with earthquakes and the government wanted to know where the
economy would be interrupted. A seismograph was developed by the
brilliant scientist, mathematician, and inventor Chang Heng (whose works
also show he envisaged the earth as a sphere with nine continents and
introduced the crisscrossing grid of latitude and longitude). His
invention was noted in court records of the later Han Dynasty in 132 CE.
Modern seismographs only began development in 1848.
Matches: China. Sixth Century CE. The first version of the match
was invented in 577 CE by impoverished court ladies during a military
siege. Hard pressed for tinder during the siege, they could otherwise
not start fires for cooking, heating, etc. The matches consisted of
little sticks of pinewood impregnated with sulfur. There is no evidence
of matches in Europe before 1530.
Circulation of the Blood: China. Second Century BCE. Most people
believe blood circulation was discovered by William Harvey in 1628, but
there are other recorded notations dating back to the writings of an
Arab of Damascus, al-Nafis (died 1288). However, circulation appears
discussed in full and complex form in The Yellow Emperor's Manual of
Corporeal Medicine in China by the second century BCE.
Paper: China. Second Century BCE. Papyrus, the inner bark of the
papyrus plant, is not true paper. Paper is a sheet of sediment which
results from the settling of a layer of disintegrated fibers from a
watery solution onto a flat mold. Once the water is drained away, the
deposited layer is removed and dried. The oldest surviving piece of
paper in the world is made of hemp fibers, discovered in 1957 in a tomb
near Xi'an, China, and dates from between the years 140 and 87 BCE. The
oldest paper with writing on it, also from China, is dated to 110 CE and
contains about two dozen characters. Paper reached India in the seventh
century and West Asia in the eighth. The Arabs sold paper to Europeans
until manufacture in the West in the twelfth century.
Brandy and whiskey: China. Seventh Century CE. The tribal people
of Central Asia discovered 'frozen-out wine' in their frigid climate in
the third century CE. In wine that had frozen was a remaining liquid
(pure alcohol). Freezing became a test for alcohol content. Distilled
wine was known in China by the seventh century. The distillation of
alcohol in the West was discovered in Italy in the twelfth century.
The Kite: China. Fifth/Fourth Century BCE. Two kitemakers,
Gongshu Pan who made kites shaped like birds which could fly for up to
three days, and Mo Di (who is said to have spent three years building a
special kite) were famous in Chinese traditional stories from as early
as the fifth century BCE. Kites were used in wartime as early as 1232
when kites with messages were flown over Mongol lines by the Chinese.
The strings were cut and the kites landed among the Chinese prisoners,
inciting them to revolt and escape. Kites fitted with hooks and bait
were used for fishing, and kites were fitted with strings and whistles
to make musical sounds while flying. The kite was first mentioned in
Europe in a popular book of marvels and tricks in 1589.
The rocket and multistaged rockets: China. Eleventh and Twelfth
Centuries CE. Around 1150 it crossed someone's mind to attach a
comet-like fireworks to a four foot bamboo stick with an arrowhead and a
balancing weight behind the feathers. To make the rockets multi-staged,
a secondary set of rockets was attached to the shaft, their fuses
lighted as the first rockets burned out. Rockets are first mentioned in
the West in connection with a battle in Italy in 1380, arriving in the
wake of Marco Polo.
Not all Chinese scientific and technological achievements lie in the
remote past. Contemporary scientists include Chen Ning Yang and Tsung Dao
Lee (Nobel Physics Prize, 1957), and Choh Hao Li (biochemist, world's
foremost authority on the pituitary gland). Chinese physicists developed a
nuclear reactor is 1958, an atomic bomb in 1964, a missile to deliver it
in 1966, and put a satellite into orbit in 1970.
In 2005, China created the "Taikonaut" (taikong means
space in Chinese) by sending a manned spacecraft into orbit. China is the
third nation on earth to do this, following Russia (Cosmonauts) and
Copyright 2005. Author: Jean Johnson.