Out to Sea

We are still looking at how the Europeans started to go out to conquer the rest of the world
the next question will be how did they succeed

Five developments were necessary before Europeans would cross the oceans in large numbers (these inventions did not cause exploration but came as a result of early attempts at exploration):

1. a strong desire to undertake imperialistic adventures overseas (mostly for the sake of wealth)
2. improved ships
3. improved techniques for navigation
4. weapons that would be effective from on board a ship
5. a source of energy--the technology and knowledge to effectively use the wind

In this case the cause and effect are not what you would expect--exploration comes first, the technology to make it relatively safe comes later

the full rigged ship (about 1500--only one of Columbus's ships was the new design)

ship with one lanteen sailship
            with several sails, square and lanteen

Spanish Sailing Ships

According to Crosby the bottleneck was knowledge of wind patterns
globe showing wind
            circulation patterns


  • Compass allows you to tell what direction you are going in
  • But that isn't much use if you don't know where you are
  • astrolabe measures how high the north star is above the horizon to determine latitude  (image of use)
  • But they had no way to determine longitude
  • More accurate maps were therefore very important
  • sail north or south to the right latitude then sail east or west until you hit land
  • That plus knowing the wind patterns was the approach to navigation on which early colonization was based
Cannon on ships were the necessary weapon
only then did Europeans have an advantage in naval warfare
depended on developing metallurgy good enough so the cannon would not explode too often
primitive cannon
  • gunpowder was invented by the Chinese
  • Europeans developed primitive cannon about 1325 used carved stone balls and the whole cannon exploded a lot
  • iron cannonballs introduced 1350, corned gunpowder (made into even pellets) for more even explosion (to shoot out the cannon ball) about 1420
  • better iron for cannon making
  • cannon became safe enough to use on a ship about 1500
  • very quickly warships began carrying large numbers of cannon--England rose to power partly because they were more successful in making iron cannon (because they happened to have high-phosphorous iron ore)
Technologies gave the Europeans an advantage
but they didn't have the technologies to start, they developed them because they needed them

Definition of technology--ways human beings modify (or work with) the environment for our own uses
knowledge of how to use the winds is a technology
changing relationship with the environment--getting better and better at using it (and protect ourselves from it)
some technologies have an ongoing effect on the environment
when we use technology to modify the environment what effect do we have

This page written and copyright Pamela E. Mack
last updated 1/22/10
Hist 124