Factors that helped Europe become a major technological power.
Let’s rewind to the 13th century Europe. While the “dark ages” were not really dark, it was a period when Europe’s global connections dropped quite low. Since the fall of the Roman empire and the rise of Arabs in the middle, the trade with India reduced and there was only a very faint understanding of East Asia. No known European have been recorded to visit China and vice versa.
Then a random group of nomads sprang out of nowhere and suddenly connected the whole of Eurasia. Along with the discovery of Columbus, the Mongol empire was among the most monumental things in human history. It is stated that in Mongol rule, a trader could put a gold plate on top of his head and walk all the way from China to Europe without a threat of robbery [no robber messes with the Mongols].
For all the stereotyping of the Mongols, they were among the greatest catalysts of globalization & dramatic exchange of ideas.
Marco Polo & his adventures.
A Venetian family utilized the trade routes opened up by the Mongols to travel to China and Central Asia. A famous guy from the family was Marco Polo whose travel diaries [The Travels of Marco Polo] fascinated everyone. It made centuries of Europeans very curious about the world & made them dying for exploration after centuries of very limited contacts.
Not only did it pique everyone’s curiosity, it also helped build the cartography foundations that were later used by others to build fairly descriptive maps of the world [Fra Mauro map].
Asian innovations flooding Europe
As a result of the Mongol invasions and explorations by travelers such as Marco Polo, major innovations from the China — Compass, Printing Press, Paper and Gunpowder entered Europe. It was also the time when Mathematical foundations of India and Arabia was entering Europe. Fibonacci’s book of Indorum [the methods of Indians] as a part of Liber Abaci was especially a pioneering work for that field.
Truly an explosive combination.
Black Death ravages Europe
Mongols & their free trade not just brought new ideas & innovations. They also made it easy for rats to travel easily between continents [hitching a ride on ships]. The plague was exported from China/India in the 1330s and hit the Europeans who were not very immune to this. Black Death
Europe was ravaged for a long time and a lot of countries lost a large chunk of their population. The poor was especially affected and in many countries the peasant class was wiped out.
As their poor peasants were getting eradicated, the feudal lords were forced to be more egalitarian — either treating the existing peasants better or do some more work themselves. Black Death: The lasting impact This broke apart feudalism in a lot of places. In parallel, people began questioning the importance/power of religion and this brought centuries of religious reformation/renaissance in much of Europe. The Black Death and Religious Impact
By 1400s, Europe was more egalitarian, more open to change, more curious and more desperate for greater trade with Asia. Thanks to the Mongols, they also had better technology to implement their ideas.
The printing press & distant voyages
In the 1400s, another monumental change occurred in Europe. The movable type. While the Asians invented printing [http://www.livescience.com/43639...] , they didn’t really take the movable type that seriously as their writing systems were fairly complex & unsuitable for a lot of automation at that time. However, the Latin script was fairly simple and small and it was ideal for the movable type pioneered by Guttenberg.
The movable type made it very cheap to mass produce books, especially of the religious kind when Christianity was fast growing. It was also at this time Europeans were traveling far and bringing back new stories. The masses absorbed these with the mass produced books. This created a large thriving market for publishers that were later used to disseminate science. Idea sharing became faster than ever before, enabled by a common language [Latin] and a curious populace.
Colonialism & its impact
Through a bunch of fortunate events, the Europeans got ahead of others. The most important of this was the accidental discovery of the Americas and the elimination of most of its populace through germs & genocide.
Until the Americas was discovered, the Europeans didn’t have a lot to give to the Asians to buy their silk, spices, tea, textiles and other stuff. However, the massive silver reserves of the Americas drastically changed the world. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ne...
Asians adored silver and gold. The Europeans had seemingly endless supplies of it powered by new mines all over the Americas. They also had a variety of new agricultural products — potato, tobacco etc European traders got actively into Asia and came back very rich.
Building universities & scientific foundation
By the 1700s, Europe’s printing presses were very widespread and literacy was fast growing. There was far more prosperity powered by global trade. There were new things and ideas they found in all these far flung places that they fully internalized & built on. Especially those ideas that provided them a direct military advantage or commercial advantage [such as steam engines, rail lines and telegraph] was heavily funded and encouraged.
It was at this time the Universities that were originally just built for religious teaching & training the royals began to be open for masses. European rulers needed a lot of locals to travel & manage their foreign colonies & needed to train a lot. This created an educated populace, some of whom went on to generate scientific discovery.
Europeans by now had the momentum, sizable knowledge distribution channels, prosperity, curiosity and most importantly commercial incentive, to innovate. Due to the nature of their colonial explorations they also learned to work in teams better.
Finally, the world wars provided an even bigger catalyst and sharing of ideas. UK handed over all its key technological secrets to the US providing a very powerful Anglo technological empire [How the Tizard Mission paved the way for research at MIT] that laid the foundation of modern technology sharing in the west. That is just one example of a variety of things that happened in that period.
Here is my new Quora book to explore more: A Brief History of the World