INVENTION: Ideas that changed the world
THERE is one historical factoid that simply blows my neo cortex and will probably continue to astound me until the day I die. It is perhaps more of a hypothetical than anything else and begs the age-old question of “what if?”
Around 100 BC European cultures started to become increasingly fond of their favourite drink, wine, as they perfected its creation and associated it with wealth and prosperity. The beautiful colour of wine, its taste and scent became such an obsession that the Romans started to discover better ways to preserve their fermented elixir.
Thus, glass entered our world, and resulted in a chain of invention that is still being advanced today. Glass led to lens grinding and spectacles, meaning that intellectuals and scientists had an extra 15 to 20 years of reading and active life. Microscopes came into play, which led to the discovery of micro-organisms, including the discovery and behaviour of the bacterium.
On a larger scale, telescopes gazed outwards, allowing humankind to further its knowledge of our galaxy and the Earth’s place within it. And because glass is chemically neutral — meaning that it doesn’t react to anything that’s in it — chemicals could be mixed in glass beakers and flasks. This advanced chemistry and modern medicine to new levels.
This is not to mention plasma computer screens, cellphones, light bulbs, windows, windscreens, clocks and watches, glass domes and spaceships. Glass valves have become essential in modern electronics too and can be found in several household items that don’t have a particularly glassy feel.
And all because Europeans enjoyed their wine.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, one of the most inventive people to have ever lived, the Chinese, were quite content with the teacup. They had no interest in Western wine and used paper and ceramics as glass substitutes. Chinese windows and lanterns were all made from paper and the potential of glass was never recognised in the East due to their preference for tea.
So from the 14th century right up to the 19th century, glass did not exist in the Eastern part of the world. While the Chinese did go on to invent a myriad of other things, it can be argued that not inventing glass held back the course of Chinese history.
Of course a lack of glass did not stop the Chinese from going on to invent other things. We have them to thank for paper, printing, gunpowder, the compass, archeology, automatically opening doors, hydraulics, the bristle toothbrush, landmines, fireworks, the fishing reel, kites, the crossbow, playing cards, porcelain, the rudder, tofu, toilet paper, the wheelbarrow, and of course, China.
Yet the thought of what may have been invented if glass has existed in China for those 500 years is staggering. The world as we know it could be a lot different today if things had panned out differently. We might all be speaking Chinese and drinking tea.