Four Great Inventions are four inventions of the Ancient China that had great impact on the Western World. They were originally ascribed to Europe, and specifically to Germany but when Portuguese sailors and Spanish missionaries began to return back to Europe in the 1530s, they reported that these inventions had existed in China for centuries. These inventions are compass gunpowder, papermaking and printing.
Compass began as a tool for divination but in time became an instrument for navigation which opened up new ways for us, helped us map the world as it is and discover new lands. Read more about Chinese invention of compass.
Trying to find elixir of immortality, Chinese alchemists found gunpowder. From that moment, gunpowder was used mainly in warfare but it also had some good uses as in fireworks, mining and in civil engineering. Read more about Chinese gunpowder invention.
Paper was not the first writing medium but it was the most convenient since it first appeared. And it is still one of the most convenient although it is almost replaced in some areas. Read more about Chinese papermaking.
Printing replaced mass produced handwritten materials and allowed for spreading of books and texts that were until then reserved only for very rich or for very connected. Doing that it was a cornerstone of Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Learn all about Chinese invention of printing.
Compass is an instrument for orientation and navigation, and it appeared for the first time in China between the 2nd century BC and 1st century AD. It consists of a lodestone or a magnetic needle that could rotate freely and oriented itself in accordance of the Earth magnetic field. In the beginning it was used for geomancy, in search for gems, for selection of sites for houses and in feng shui. Only later, in the 9th century, it was used for nautical and land navigation and allowed for mariners to navigate safely far from land where there are no visible markers for navigation, which increased sea trade, and was of contribution to the Age of Discovery. Compass spread in 12th century to Europe and 13th century to Persia. More advanced variants of compass developed in time. Some of them are dry compass, bearing compass and liquid compass.
Gunpowder is a chemical explosive that was invented (or found) by Chinese alchemists searching for an elixir of immortality in the 9th century. It is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter) and, at first, it was not too explosive but it was highly flammable and because of that it was used in flame spears -an early form of flamethrower. It was also used for fireworks whose role was to scare away evil spirits. With the help of Mongols who conquered nearby countries gunpowder came to Persia in a form of gunpowder catapults in 12th or 13th century. The first cannons in history were used against them shortly after by the Mamluks at the Battle of Ain Jalut. Hand-cannons, as the first hand weapon that used gunpowder and shoot projectiles, were known to Arabs in 14th century. Europe gets to know the gunpowder by one of two ways: Silk Road or Mongols. Arquebus - early muzzle-loaded firearm was invented in the 15th. Gunpowder was also used in mining.
Papermaking is a technique of making paper and was known in China since 2nd century BC. In about 105, Cai Lun, who was an official on the Imperial court during the Han Dynasty, created a sheet of paper using mulberry and other bast fibers with fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste. By the 3rd century, paper was used for writing and by the 6th century as toilet paper. In the 8th century, paper came to the Islamic world where its production was improved and papermaking becomes a major industry. The first water-powered pulp mills appeared in Samarkand while the first paper mills appeared in 9th century in Damask. Paper reached Europe in 11th century and became a large industry in coming centuries.
Printing is a process for reproducing text and images that was improved in China with technique of woodblock printing before 220. It came in to use as a technique of printing on paper in 8th century. Moveable metal type technique came into use during the 12th century but it didn’t replace woodblock because it was easier to cut a wooden block to have the text that would be printed than handling the several thousand logographs that were needed to make a text. Movable type was also made from bronze and ceramics but European type of press with movable type was not widely used in the East until 19th century.