Sasha recommended to me Jean Gimpel's The Medieval Machine, which is indeed a fascinating history of the Medieval Industrial Revolution. Gimpel's claim is that the Middle Ages, especially from the 11th to the 13th centuries were — despite their reputation — a time of great innovation in a wide range of fields: the harnessing of water and wind power, increased efficiency in agriculture and in use of draft animals (especially horses), the invention of clocks, eyeglasses, and other important tools, and more. Very interesting stuff, and seems quite persuasive.
But Gimpel also draws analogies between his time (the book was first published in 1976, but then revised in 1988) and the Middle Ages — and, boy, are they pessimistic. Some of his specific criticisms of then-modern cultural attitudes toward technology and innovation seem generally apt, but consider the bottom lines, from the January 1988 Preface (one paragraph break added):
We are witnessing a sharp arrest in technological impetus, save in the military field: it was in the declining Middle Ages that the cannon was developed. Innovations — that is, inventions that have been financed, tested and made commercially available — are few and far between, a fact particularly remarkable in the pharmaceutical industry. Even computers have not spread into every home in the country, as was forecast. Like every previous civilization, we have reached a plateau.
The main purpose of this study is to examine closely, and with new perspectives, the industrial life and institutions of the Middle Ages, and the genius of their inventinveness. Comparisons with our own society will be apparent throughout, and a detailed study of parallels between the two great inventive eras, medieval and modern, will be found in the epilogue....
[But] I must point out one alarming contrast. The economic depression that struck Europe in the fourteenth century was followed ultimately by economic and technological recovery.
But the depression we have moved into will have no end. We can anticipate centuries of decline and exhaustion. There will be no further industrial revolution in the cycles of our Western civilization.
Hmm. I surely can't promise unlimited future technological growth; one has to be hesitant in making predictions like that. But Gimpel seems to have no such hesitation — "the depression we have moved into will have no end." "There will be no further industrial revolution in the cycles of our Western civilization."
Looking even at the modest span of time from 1976 and 1988 to the present, that sort of confidence in technological stagnation seems pretty hard to swallow. Perhaps the English (and in some measure American) economic doldrums of the 1970s left a sour taste in Gimpel's mouth; yet it seems a mistake to judge the technological future of an entire civilization based on sad interludes such as those.