Medieval Uses of Air: Lynn White, Jr. By David Barney

Prior to the 19th century, technology and science for the most part was independent of each other. This implied that scientific understanding did not always, and often did not, precede related technological developments. This was true for technology that put air to work. Medieval technology that utilized air was often simple enough to not require much scientific understanding, but useful enough to cause considerable growth in Europe.

One of the first exploitation of air goes back to the Neolithic times where sails were placed on boats to be propelled by air. Over time sail technology would evolve with developments such as fore-and-aft rigs that allowed for boats to sail in more directions including almost directly into the wind. Another early adoption of air power would be pipe organs. The pipe organ was a vary intricate device that pumped air into reeds to develop noise particularly for religious purposes. An important technology to use air in the Medieval times was bellows. Bellows were a device that were used as part of a blast furnace to provide the furnace with more air and therefore create higher temperatures to produce cast iron. The Middle ages would also see several attempts for flying utilizing gliders but due to the risk involved it never took off.

Eventually air would be put to mechanical uses through development of windmills. Windmills were developed in the Middle East in the 10th century to grind grain with millstones. European windmills would be developed later in the North Sea region before spreading rapidly through Europe. In flat areas, windmills took the role of watermills due to the lack flowing water. Windmills became so prevalent that much of the deforestation in England around the 14th century can be accredited to the construction of windmills.

Late in the Medieval period compressed air would be another useful invention created to move materials. Technology such as suctions pumps were used to lift water out of the ground.

What I believe White is trying to convey is that simple useful technology such as wind technology does not necessarily need scientific understanding to be created. Devices such as sails, blast furnaces, windmill and suction pumps had immediate and influential importance for the technological development for Europe during the Medieval time.

Here are some related readings:

The first reading is about Eilmer of Malmesbury. Eilmer was a monk who constructed a glider a flew 200 meters before crashing. Despite breaking both of his legs, Eilmer made plans for another flight after believing that a tail to his glider would improve stability. While gliders and air travel never became extremely successful during the Medieval times, Eimer’s feat was one attempt to advance flight technology.

(Word Count 447)

One Reply to “Medieval Uses of Air: Lynn White, Jr. By David Barney”

  1. David,

    This is a fascinating post. I really appreciated your prose and description on the use of air during that period. I think it would be interesting to further connect this subject with the field of environmental history. I am sure it has, but its my initial thought while reading this post.

    Nicely done!

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