Monday, February 13, 2012

Learning Today: The Four Great Inventions And Four Genius Tinkerings. Part 1: Paper

The history of the world can be written in many different ways. We can mark the centuries by the passing of kings, by the empires' ebbs and flows, or by the progress of science and invention. Each focus will make a different kind of history, with its own heroes, tragedies, and triumphs.

If we look at the history of civilization as the history of invention, the West crouches perilously on the fringes of world history, a minor player with only a few moments of greatness. Who dominates the story instead? China.

The most conspicuous evidence of classical Chinese technical superiority are the Four Great Inventions. Paper-making. The compass. Printing. Gunpowder. These, undoubtably, paved the way for the modern world.

We think of invention the same way we think of magic. A single person--lab coatted and wise--huddles in a dark room and creates this new thing. He emerges after months of invention, an iPod or a pulley in his hand, waiting for the thronging crowds of people to use the creation of his inventive genius.

In Malcom Gladwell's recent article on Steve Jobs, Gladwell suggests that real invention doesn't happen like this at all. Instead, it happens by tinkering. One person has a great idea--a washing machine or a printing press--and then other people take that idea and fool around with it until it becomes perfect. The first iteration of a great idea is like first tries everywhere. Kinda incomplete and crap.

These next few days we will be looking at the Four Great Inventions of China--not just the history of their invention, but also the genius that came when they were tinkered with. We will start with paper.

Before paper, if you wanted to write something down, you were in trouble. What could you use? Leather, which was expensive--or papyrus, which was expensive. Writing, literacy, the whole great life of the mind was relegated only to the rich who could afford the luxury of paper. (This also led to people actually having to remember stuff--using their brain!--and a number of mnemonic systems, including the Memory Palace, which perhaps is a topic for another post.)

But the course of the world was changed when Cai Lun appeared in the pages of history, because it's Cai Lun who assured that the pages of history would be paper, and not the skin of a stillborn calf. Cai Lun was a eunuch in China's Han dynasty. In the turn of the first century AD, he created the first modern-looking paper from mulberry bark and trash.

In the centuries to come this paper would be used for everything we use paper for and more. Armor, clothing, toilet paper, tea bags--and yes, good old fashioned writing material.

And so how was paper tinkered with? For that let's jump ahead a couple hundred years to the turn of the millennia. Because paper is not only simple writing material. Paper can become power. Dear reader, it was also in China that paper assumed its most potent transformation, from simple writing material--to money, the store of value, the root of all evil, step one in Tony Montana's simple rules for success.

The Chinese state issued the first paper currency. Again, it was made from mulberry bark. Printed with a picture of the amount in cash that the bank note could be exchanged for, these little scraps of paper greased the wheels trade for hundreds of years before the whole system crashed in an inflationary cataclysm.

Check back next time. Hopefully we'll have time for a double-header--we'll be tackling the invention of the compass and the printing press.

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