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CHINESE  INVENTIONS

Writing Porcelain Smallpox Inoculation
Magnetic Compass Canals & Locks
Abacus
Movable Sails & Rudder Roads & Relay Hostels Spinning Wheel 
Coal & Iron Refining Gunpowder Movable-Type
Great Wall Mechanical Clock Paper Money 




Template for your notes:

NAME  OF  INVENTION,
OPTIONAL  PICTURE
  • APPROXIMATE  DATE  OF  INVENTION,
  • BRIEF  DESCRIPTION,
  • IMPORTANCE  OR  IMPACT  TODAY
Writing
  • 1700 BC carved symbols for words
  • 1200 BC highly developed
  • Books preserved history & learning

Writing


A group of ancient tombs have been discovered in recent years in Shandong Province which date back 4,500 years. Among the relics are about a dozen pottery wine vessels, which bear one character each. These characters are found to be stylized pictures of some physical objects, and so are called pictographs

By 1700 BC, symbols were carved on oracle bones and tortoise shells, shown at left.  These are thought to be the first true Chinese writing.  These picture words underwent a gradual evolution over the centuries until the pictographs changed into "square characters," some simplified by losing certain strokes and others made more complicated but, as a whole, from irregular drawings they became stylized forms.  By 1200 BC Chinese writing was already a highly developed writing system that was used to record a language fairly similar to classical Chinese.  In 1000 BC the first book was produced.  By inventing writing so early in their history, the Chinese preserved a record of their history and learning.

Magnetic compass

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As early as 500 BC, Chinese scientists had studied and learned much about magnetism in nature. For example, they knew that iron ore, called magnetite, tended to align itself in a North/South position. Scientists learned to "make magnets" by heating pieces of ore to red hot temperatures and then cooling the pieces in a North/South position. The original lacquered earth plate, dating to the 3rd century BC, is currently on display at the Museum of Chinese History. Later, the magnets were placed on bronze plates marked with directional bearings.  Compasses were first used in Feng Shui, the layout of buildings.  By 1000 AD, navigational compasses were widely used on Chinese ships, enabling them to navigate without stars in view.   The magnetic compass remains an essential navigational tool today.
Movable Sails & Rudder top

China has a very old seafaring tradition. Chinese ships had sailed to India as early as the Han Dynasty. By 100 AD,  Chinese shipbuilders invented the stern post rudder and watertight compartments for ship's hulls. By 200 AD, they used several masts and the redesigned the basic square sail with the fore-and-aft rig.  This allowed the ship to sail into the wind.  

With these inventions, the Chinese trader and explorer Zheng Ho sailed as far as Africa between 1405 and 1433. Mysteriously, China did not follow up on these voyages. The Chinese destroyed their ocean going ships and halted further expeditions. 
Coal & Iron Refining top

Iron was smelted in China by the 4th century BC, and steel was perfected by the 400's AD using coal as a high temperature fuel. 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.  This expertise allowed the production of pots and pans with thin walls. With the development of annealing, ploughshares, longer swords, and even buildings were eventually made of iron.

In later centuries, the mass production of steel made industrial machinery possible.
Great Wall top

The building of the Great Wall of China, one of the legendary seven wonders of the world, began in 221 BC in an effort to keep Mongol invaders out.  In the 600's AD, the Sui Emperor Yang Di began a huge project of repairing the ancient wall.  The costs of rebuilding the wall were enormous.  The construction involved the forced labor of hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom died from the harsh working conditions and were buried in the wall itself.  Costs were also increased by the frequent robbery of supply wagons.  15,000 defense towers and forts were constructed along the walls.  It remains the largest structure ever built anywhere in the world, and is the only human made work on earth visible from orbit.
Porcelain top

It seems that porcelain was not a sudden invention, although some claim that Tao-Yue in the 600's AD was the legendary inventor of porcelain. He used so-called 'white clay' (kaolin) which he found along the Yangzte river where he was born. He added other types of clay to produce the first white porcelain, which he sold as 'artificial jade' in the capital Chang-an.  By around 900 AD, porcelain was perfected, incorporating the translucent minerals quartz and feldspar.

Porcelain was much finer than other clay ceramics, so thin as to be translucent.  Its white color could be painted in many colors.  Porcelain was one of the most highly prized products from China, and in fact came to be called "china."
Canals & Locks
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Imperial China's construction of waterways to connect different parts of its vast territory produced some of the world's greatest water engineering projects.  One of the most impressive was the building of the Grand Canal.  Construction of the first Grand Canal began in the early 600's to connect the Yellow River (Hwang He) in the north with the Yangzi River (Chiang Jiang) in the south. The project lasted for many centuries as it was constantly enlarged and repaired.  Once the Grand Canal was in use, people could carry messages and ships could carry rice back and forth. 

Canal locks were another innovation in the 10th century.  These allowed boats to go uphill and downhill, by raising or lowering the water level within the lock.  Click here to see how a lock works.  This invention allowed boats to travel farther inland.  Today locks are used in places like Niagara Falls and the Panama Canal.
Roads & Relay Hostels top

Roads and relay hostels, or inns, greatly improved communication and trade throughout the vast land of China.  By the late 700's, inns offered horses and food to travelers, and provided places for government officials to stay for the night during long journeys. The system of roads allowed government inspectors, tax collectors, and postal messengers to move long distances.  Messengers delivered mail across hundreds of miles.  Merchants could carry trade goods such as rice, tea, silk, and seafood without fear of bandits.
Gunpowder top

Around 200 AD, Chinese scientists discovered that an explosive mixture could be produced by combining sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate).  The explosive mixture, called huoyao, was used by the military in the 900's during the Tang Dynasty.  Imagine their enemy's surprise when the Chinese first demonstrated their newest invention.  New weapons were rapidly developed, including rockets that were launched from a bamboo tube.

The Chinese began experimenting with the gunpowder filled tubes. At some point, they attached bamboo tubes to arrows and launched them with bows. Soon they discovered that these gunpowder tubes could launch themselves just by the power produced from the escaping gas. The true rocket was born.  The date reporting the first use of true rockets was in 1232. At this time, the Chinese and the Mongols were at war with each other. During the battle of Kai-Keng, the Chinese repelled the Mongol invaders by a barrage of "arrows of flying fire." These fire arrows were a simple form of a solid propellant rocket. A tube, capped at one end, contained gunpowder. The other end was left open and the tube was attached to a long stick. When the powder was ignited, the rapid burning of the powder produced fire, smoke, and gas that escaped out the open end and produced a thrust. The stick acted as a simple guidance system that kept the rocket headed in one general direction as it flew through the air. It is not clear how effective these arrows of flying fire were as weapons of destruction, but their psychological effects on the Mongols must have been formidable.  Gunpowder changed the methods of war forever.

Mechanical Clock top

One of the greatest inventions of the medieval world was the mechanical clock.  The difficulty in inventing a mechanical clock was to figure out a way in which a wheel no bigger than a room could turn at the same speed as the Earth, but still be turning more or less continuously. If this could be accomplished, then the wheel became a mini Earth and could tell the time. 

Yi Xing, a Buddhist monk, made the first model of a mechanical clock in 725 AD.  This clock operated by dripping water that powered a wheel which made one full revolution in 24 hours.  An iron and bronze system of wheels and gears made the clock turn.  This system caused the chiming of a bell on the hour. 

Su Sung's great 'Cosmic Engine' of 1092 was 35 feet high. At the top was a power driven sphere for observing the positions of the stars.  The power for turning it was transmitted from the dripping water by a chain drive. A celestial globe inside the tower turned in synchronization with the sphere above.  It was two more centuries before the first mechanical clock was developed in Europe.
Smallpox Inoculation top

Inoculation works by introducing a weak form of a disease to stimulate the human body to fight off the disease.  Smallpox, a deadly virus characterized by skin blisters drying to crater-shaped scars, existed in Europe, Asia, and Africa. 

The technique of inoculation was first publicly recognized when the son of Prime Minister Wang Dan (957-1017) died of smallpox.  Hoping to prevent the same thing from happening to other family members, Wang Dan summoned physicians from all over China.  A Daoist monk introduced the technique of inoculation to the physicians in the capital.  By the 16th century it was widely practiced against smallpox in China.  The technique was unknown in Europe until the 1800's, when it was introduced by Edward Jenner.

Abacus

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The Chinese developed the abacus, a counting device,  around 100 AD.  By the 1300's it was perfected and given the form it still has today.  The instrument consisted of a rectangular wooden frame with parallel rods.  Each rod holds beads as counters.  The rods are separated into upper and lower parts by a crossbar.  Each bead above the crosspiece is worth five units, and each below is worth one.  The rungs or rods from right to left indicate place value in powers of ten -- ones, tens, hundred, and so on. 

With this instrument the Chinese could add, subtract, multiply and divide with remarkable speed.  The abacus became the basic calculating device in Asia, where it is still widely used.
Spinning Wheel top

Silk was first made by the Chinese about 4000 years ago. Silk thread is made from the cocoon of the silkworm moth, whose caterpillar eats the the leaves of the mulberry tree.  Silk spinners needed a method to deal with the tough, long silk threads. To meet the increasing demand for silk fabric, the Chinese developed the spinning wheel in 1035.  This simple circular machine, easily operated by one person, could wind fine fibers of silk into thread.  The invention used a wheel to stretch and align the fibers.  A drive belt made the wheels spin.  Italians who traveled to China during the Mongol dynasty brought the invention to Europe in the 14th century.

Left: lady spinning

Right: 2-man loom

Movable Type

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The technique of printing with carved wood blocks appeared about the 7th century, early in the Tang dynasty. Block printing reached its golden age during the Song dynasty, in the years 960-1279, as the imperial patronage encouraged the publication of large numbers of books by the central and local governments. Movable type was first invented by Bi Sheng of the Song dynasty in the year 1045 AD. The invention of reusable, moveable type made books cheaper and more available.

Europeans separately invented movable type in the 1400's.  Until the invention of computers and photocopying in the 20th century, all books were printed using movable type.

Paper Money

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The Chinese invented paper money in the 9th century AD.  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. In 1024, the Song government took over the printing of paper money and used it as a medium of exchange backed by deposited "cash" (a Chinese term for metal coins). The first Muslim bankers used a checking system by the 1200's, followed by Italian bankers in the 1400's.  Paper money is still the most common form of currency around the world. 

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