4.1A: Technological Innovations from 1450 to 1750


AP Theme

Technology and Innovation

Learning Objective 4A

Explain how cross-cultural interactions resulted in technology diffusion and facilitated trade and travel patterns changes from 1450 to 1750.

Historical Development 1

 Knowledge, scientific learning, and technology from ancient Europe, Islamic, and Asian worlds spread throughout Europe, facilitating European technological developments and innovation.

Historical Development 2

 New tools, innovations in ship designs, and an improved understanding of regional wind and currents patterns—all of which made transoceanic travel and trade possible.

Key ideas

The 15th and 16th centuries were centuries of dramatic change across Europe.

The European Renaissance (rebirth of Europe) led to increased knowledge and technological diffusion throughout Europe.

Europeans acquired new knowledge and technologies through interactions with other cultures.

Advancements in European maritime knowledge and technology prepared Europe for its age of global exploration and conquest.


The European Renaissance Reshaped Europe

The 14th and 15th centuries were centuries of dramatic change across Europe as feudalism and manorialism declined. In its place, Europe began to develop an increasingly commercialized economy and reconnected to global trading and exchange systems. Multiple factors contributed to these changes, including new European attitudes that resulted from the demographic decimation left by the black death in the 14th century and new classes of scholars, artists, and innovators that emphasized the exploration of knowledge and the human experience.

What was the European Renaissance?

One of the significant events that reshaped Europe during the 15th century was the European Renaissance. Meaning “rebirth,” the European Renaissance resulted in the revival of Greek and Roman classical ideas, literature, art, culture, and civic life.

Humanism: The Renaissance emphasized the pursuit of knowledge and learning, and it also focused on humanism, which focused on the individual and human world instead of God and the afterlife. Humanists believed in critical thinking and evidence, not superstition and dogma (beliefs claimed to be unquestionably true).

Changing Ideas: The Renaissance
Before Renaissance
After Renaissance
Religious dominated life. There was a strong focus on preparing one’s soul for the afterlife. The individual was not important. There was also a limited focus on knowledge and learning.
Humanist thought refocuses on the individual and finding meaning in our lives on earth. There is a renewed focus on learning, especially the Greek philosophical classics.

Causes of the European Renaissance

The seeds that sprouted into the European Renaissance were laid in the centuries before the Renaissance. 

  1. The Crusades: The Crusades of the previous centuries had led to increased trade, and increased commerce resulted in an increasing money supply and the growth of towns and cities. The Crusades also revived interest in ancient Greek ideas and art through contacts with Christian and Greek scholars in the Byzantine empire.
  2. The collapse of the Christian Byzantine empire: The fall of the Byzantine Empire led to the scattering of Greek scholars across Europe. These scholars brought with them their knowledge of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. 
  3. The black death: Millions died in Europe during the spread of the Black Death in the 14th century. This mass death event caused many people’s outlooks on life to change. Across Europe, there was an increased focus on the individual, human life, and the present. There was a strong emphasis on bettering the human experience. 
  4. Interactions with the Islamic world: Through interactions with the Islamic world, Europeans gained valuable knowledge of mathematical concepts in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Major technological innovations such as the magnetic compass and gunpowder arrived in Europe through the Islamic world. Significant cross-cultural diffusion occurred in Muslim Spain. 
  5. New technologies entered Europe: New technological innovations, such as the printing press, helped Renaissance scholars spread their ideas quicker. Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468) invented the European printing press in the 1440s, at the height of the European Renaissance. However, Gutenberg’s printing press was not the first, and Chinese inventors developed the first printing presses in the 9th century. Some scholars theorize that Gutenberg may have gotten his idea for his printing press from knowledge passed through interactions between Eastern Europeans and Mongols or Europeans and Middle Easterners in the Islamic world. 

Effects of the European Renaissance

The Renaissance was revolutionary for Europe and changed European society more than any change since the collapse of the Roman Empire 1000 years earlier. The significant effects included the following.  

  1. Monarchs’ power increased: The power of European monarchies increased the power of the Pope, the Catholic Church, and the noble classes declined.
  2. Europe became less religious: European society became less religious as humanism refocused society on the importance of individuals, not just religion and the afterlife. In the long term, humanism led to the development of human rights and democracy. 
  3. European governments enlarge: European kingdoms’ governments became more expansive and centralized with larger bureaucratic systems. As a result, governments began to take on more responsibility for infrastructure, trade, and the economy. 
  4. European Scientific Revolution: Increased focus on knowledge and learning resulted in the first Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Scientific Revolution ultimately resulted in the start of the Industrial Revolution. New mathematics models led to new financial instruments and trading systems. 
  5. Growth of nationalism: Nationalism slowly increased as old notions of Greek and Roman citizenship spread, and people began to identify as citizens of nations and not towns, villages, or manors. 
  6. Growth in literature: As literacy rates increased, literature began to be written in vernacular (local languages and dialects like English, French, or German) instead of Latin, which had been the language of the Church and elite classes. 
  7. New artistic styles: Artists innovated new artistic techniques that were more realistic and true to the human form. 
  8. European expansion and conquest: The search for new ideas, knowledge, and trade wealth led to the start of European exploration and conquest. 

Cross-Cultural Interactions Reshaped Europe

The European Renaissance and the technological innovations that allowed European expansion starting in the 15th century resulted from European interactions with other cultures.

Navigation tools gained through cross-cultural interactions

Navigation tools, primarily acquired through the Islamic world, were pivotal in helping Europe begin its age of explorations and conquest.

The magnetic compass

The magnetic compass originated in China, and Muslim traders brought it to the west. The Europeans first used the compass in Mediterranean trade and voyages from the Mediterranean to the English channel.

The astrolabe

The Greeks first invented the astrolabe, and the Muslims further developed it to help Muslims find the direction of Mecca’s to which all Muslims pray. The astrolabe made its way into Europe through Muslim Spain. The Portuguese created the mariner’s astrolabe by simplifying its design so that mariners could use it to identify a ship’s latitude by using the position of either the sun or a known star.

Astronomical charts

Between the 8th and 15th centuries, Islamic astronomers produced a wealth of astronomical knowledge. Many Islamic astronomers studied the ancient Greek astronomer and mathematician Ptolemy (c 100 – c. 170). 

  • Islamic astronomer al-Farghani wrote Elements of Astronomy on the Celestial Motions around 833, in which he wrote about and simplified Ptolemy’s theories on the motion of the stars and planets. 
  • Another Islamic astronomer Al- Sufi (903-986), wrote The Book of the Fixed Stars in 964, in which he diagramed each of the constellations in the night sky. Many of the names he gave to constellations in the night sky are still in use. Later, scholars translated both of these books into Latin, the language of the European elite. 

European astronomers widely studied these books between the 12th and 18th centuries, improving their theories and star mapping. European maritime navigators used this astronomic data to help them navigate upon unknown waters on long trans-oceanic voyages.

Lateen Sails

Europeans adopted lateen sails from Arab merchants, who used them on ships engaged in Indian Ocean trade. The sail is designed in a triangular shape so that both sides can face the find. Lateen sails allowed mariners to tack into the wind. Tacking maneuvers allowed the person steering the vessel to point the bow (front) of the ship toward the wind and adjust the steering rudder at the stern (back) of the boat to move the vessel forward against unfavorable wind directions. 


Cartography is the making of maps. As European cartographic skills became increasingly sophisticated, European mariners had more advanced sources of geographic information from which to plan their voyages. 

Prince Henry the Navigator: Portugal opened the first learning and teaching institutes for cartography. Prince Henry the Navigator, a Portuguese prince, was responsible for some of the earliest support of cartography in Europe. He established Europe’s first school for cartography and navigation in Sagres, Portugal. In this school, people trained in navigation and mapmaking. 

Old European qualitative maps: Medieval European maps were not intended for navigation, and many early maps were qualitative maps that map makers drew to make statements on specific topics. For example, mapmakers often showed Jerusalem as the center of the world, and this positioning showed the importance of the Christian world and Jerusalem as the birthplace of Jesus. 

Europe gained new mapmaking knowledge: Through interactions with Muslims and the Byzantine empire, Europe gained new techniques and expertise. Western Europe rediscovered the works of the ancient Greek cartographer Ptolemy (90-168 C.E.). These maps gave western Europeans the most accurate view they had at that time of Eurasian geography. Cartographers continuously updated maps using the most up-to-date information and mathematical methods as merchants and explorers returned from trips with additional geographic details. Maps were now tools to help people arrive at a destination and less to make political or social statements. 

Historical trend: Culture diffused from one place to another has driven major changes throughout history. Chinese Confucian thought,  Daoism, and Buddhism spread throughout East Asia in previous periods, reshaping the region. 

New Knowledge and Innovated Ship Design Prepared Europe for Transoceanic Voyages

New ship designs and increasing knowledge of the environment made European transoceanic travel possible. Many of these improved understandings and technological innovations began in Portugal and Spain before later being more widely adopted by other European powers.

Knowledge of wind and sea currents

Europe’s growing knowledge of ocean wind and ocean currents aided maritime exploration in the 15th century. For example, mariners discovered the navigation technique of volta do mar. In this system, ships use the natural circulation of ocean wind currents to loop themselves around between continents. This process sometimes led navigators to take ships far from their desired destination on one current or wind stream before looping around and using another to reach their destination. 

  • When Vasco da Gama first traveled to India around Africa’s southern tip, he used the North Atlantic equatorial currents and Northeasternly trade winds to travel west, arriving near Brazil’s coast in South America. He then switched directions and traveled east across the Atlantic Ocean using the westerly winds and South Atlantic currents.

Innovations in ship design

Innovations in European ship design allowed Europeans to travel further. Modifications to ship designs began with sturdier and faster ocean-going vessels before transitioning into ships built for armed trade and the movement of goods in bulk quantities.

Portuguese caravel: The Portuguese caravel’s design and construction was initiated by Prince Henry the Navigator. The ship used lateen sails and was light, allowing it to sail farther and faster than existing boats. The vessels helped the Portuguese and later the Spanish launch the European age of exploration because they could travel further away from coastal areas and cross vast oceans.

Carracks: First designed and used by the Portuguese, the carrack allowed for longer-distance trade. The ships were larger and sturdier than the caravel and allowed the vessel to operate safer on the open sea waves and winds. The Portuguese and Spanish used the carracks to cross the Atlantic and conquer the Americas and establish the spice trade in Asia. Larger storage capacity increased the profitability of transoceanic commerce.

Spanish Galleons: Galleons were large, multi-decked sailing ships first used as armed cargo carriers by European states from the 16th to 18th centuries. The ship was heavily armed with multiple cannons on both sides, making these vessels preferable for armed trade or military uses. Over time, these vessels became the first real warships. Galleons could hold higher cargo volumes because of their size, which further increased maritime commerce’s profitability. Galleons were also the primary ship used in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Fluyts: The fluyt was the first European maritime vessel explicitly designed for maritime trade. Fluyts were designed with minimal armaments and only held a small crew to increase their cargo capacity. First built in 1595, the ships were twice the size of other commercial boats and helped the Dutch dominate international trade from the Baltic Sea north of Europe to Indian Ocean commerce in East Asia.