The Invention of Invention

It’s tempting to think that the experience of rapid technological change is something novel to our own time. In fact, I know I’ve been guilty of giving that impression myself. But consider this passage* from a sermon delivered by Dominican Fra Giordano of Pisa at Santa Maria Novella in Florence on February 23, 1306:

“Not all the arts have been found; we shall never see an end of finding them. Everyday one could discover a new art … indeed they are being found all the time. It is not twenty years since there was discovered the art of making spectacles which help you to see well, and which is one of the best and most necessary in the world. And that is such a short time ago that a new art, which never before existed, was invented …. I myself saw the man who discovered and practiced it, and I talked with him.”

We might debate the real pace of technological advance then and now, but the phenomenological experience of change described by Giordano has a rather contemporary ring. According to historian of technology Lynn White, not only does this passage give us the best evidence for the appearance of eye glasses, it also gives witness to the “invention of invention.” According to White, it was at the height of the much maligned Medieval period that, “Technicians … in large numbers began to consider systematically all the imaginable ways of solving a problem.”

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* Lynn White cites this passage in his essay, “Cultural Climates and Technological Advance,” found in Medieval Religion and Technology.

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