Summary of Reynolds’ “Medieval Roots of the Industrial Revolution”

In this reading, Reynolds talks about Water power and its role in the industrial revolution, starting in medieval times.  He starts out by describing different rudimentary water wheels, for example vertical undershot wheels, vertical overshot wheels, and horizontal wheels.  Although these wheels were developed far before medieval times; they didn’t become widely used until the 11th century.

As time progressed, these basic wheels grew in popularity all the while, being modified to complete new and different tasks.  From the 11th century to the 18th century, these wheels were adapted and from what Reynolds says, were the basis of the Industrial revolution.  This is the main reason why the rise of the European industry should be viewed as more of an evolutionary process rather than a revolutionary one.  The water wheel couldn’t complete all tasks (later listed) from their onset, but over 7 centuries, the technology was adapted and perfected.

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As stated before, these water wheels didn’t become widely prevalent until the medieval period, the reason being; social and economic changes.  The labor surplus of the Roman Empire had disappeared, meaning that rather than slaves doing manual labor, it was ordinary citizens.  Because of this, we see that technologies that made life easier were widely adopted.

Rather than only being used as flour mills or to raise water, also called a Noria, the water wheels were modified to assist in other tasks in the medieval period.  These modifications included, the use of different gearing, the use of cams and crankshafts to transform rotary motion into linear motion.  This linear motion that was created, was used to bring water power into the metallurgy, fulling, woolens, hemp, and paper industries as well as countless others.  The many capabilities brought by the modifications allowed and caused the water wheel to be the power behind the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial revolution is usually marked by the manual labor used in the cotton-textile industry being replaced by steam powered machines in the early 19th century, but Reynolds begs to differ.  The adoption of steam power wasn’t really a “radical break” from the past.  Water power from Water Wheels had been producing mechanized power, specifically in the textile industry for a few centuries.  Reynolds states that these Water wheels, when used in series, would produce comparable power to the steam engines that would later come, also showing that steam wasn’t a huge change from previous technologies.

Word Count- 398

By: Jeff Kalitan


If you’d like to learn more about the historical use of water power in different areas of the world or how they’ve been used more recently, follow this link:

2 Replies to “Summary of Reynolds’ “Medieval Roots of the Industrial Revolution””

  1. Jeff,

    Great summary! You nicely highlight all of the main points of the article. The link you provided is a great resource in developing the use of water wheels outside of Europe as well!


  2. Jeff,

    I really enjoyed the way you reiterated the fact that the people of the middle ages did not invent the wheel, but rather they just harnessed its abilities. Your source was also very interesting as it shows the recurring theme of the course. It shows that different cultures with the same technology tend to use it differently. I agree that the decision to harness the nonorganic power lead to the development of future energy tech. Here is a source that ties the water wheel to later developments.

    Nick Burnette

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