Proceedings 1

Medieval Technology for Third-world Countries: a talk with models by M. Jean Gimpel.

February 6, 1987The Danson Room of Trinity College, Oxford

The first public meeting the Society was held before an audience of between 90 and 100, with a talk illustrated with models and slides by M. Jean Gimpel of London. Dr Alistair Crombie, chairman of the meeting, welcomed M. Gimpel both as author and as an advocate of the continuing value of medieval technological developments. Mr. Gimpel’s book The Medieval Machine must be familiar to many people at the meeting and the lecturer’s work in promoting a knowledge of and the possible application of medieval technology in third-world countries, by his extensive travels, enjoyed international recognition. Dr Crombie drew attention to the background papers relating to the Society which had been distributed together with application forms and invited those interested in joining to remain behind for the business meeting which was to follow the lecture. He welcomed all present.


M. Gimpel thanked the Chairman for his comments, expressed his pleasure at speaking in Oxford, home of Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, William of Ockham and the Merton mathematicians, and wished the new society well. He believed that a proper understanding of the laws underlying the work of technologists and scientists was vital for cultural and social advance and that politicians lacked such understanding. The history of science and technology was a vital and severely underrated discipline.

The central theme of the lecture was M Gimpel’s experiences while touring third-world countries and demonstrating principles of medieval technology with the aid of models, built under his supervision, many of which were displayed on tables in front of him. Countries he had visited included: India; Nepal; Kenya; Senegal; Mali; .Mexico; and The Philippines. Europe’s medieval technology had undoubtedly been heavily indebted to other regions, notably the Middle East. Whatever its origins, however, the European Industrial Revolution (originating in 18th-century England) had succeeded because it was founded on a medieval base, and had also been prepared for by an agricultural revolution. In the lecturer’s view Black Africa was doomed to fail in its drive towards industrialisation because it lacked any historical experience of industrial techniques or of scientific tradition.

One critical medieval advance had been the discovery of the cam - the lecturer demonstrated models showing waterpowered trio hammers activated by cam shafts. The waterwheel, and specifically the vertical waterwheel, had been the key to medieval European power technology. It had been more fully deployed there than anywhere else. By contrast, the horizontal waterwheel - five times less efficient than the vertical wheel - was found in its thousands from the Middle East to China. Underpowered, the horizontal wheel has also, never adapted effectively by the conversion of rotary, to reciprocating motion (Except for isolated early Chinese examples which achieved the process without benefit of the cam). The lecturer had demonstrated vertical wheel models in India to the admiration of local craftsmen.

In medieval Europe, water power was also applied to the saw. The lecturer emphasised that the saw itself was a relatively sophisticated tool - even today unknown in many third-world rural areas. By using a sketch from Villard de Honnecourt’s notebook (with the correction of two errors), M Gimpel and colleagues had successfully built a large-scale model of a 13th-century mechanical saw which now stands in the market place at Honnecourt..

A page from the Carnet of Villard de Honnecourt showing: water-powered saw (top left): trip-wire bow and arrow; screw jack (above right); and mechanical lectern eagle with mechanism to turn it to face the reader of the Gospel during service.

At this point M. Gimpel compared Villard’s mechanical drawings with those of Leonardo. Da Vinci, he stressed, was no inventor. As Bertrand Gille had shown, the famous drawings had been anticipated by scores of earlier engineers, many of whose works were known to Leonardo, though often inaccurately-drawn by him.

Turning his attention to lifting devices M. Gimpel demonstrated a model of the shaduf which he had shown in Senegal. Local craftsman there had constructed a working example for use in the irrigation of market gardens. It was fully effective but two years later, returning to this district, M. Gimpel found no further examples had been made. The transfer of technology was often a slow and also complex business. A more effective water-lifting device, known to the ancient world, was the noria - a waterwheel with buckets at the rim-activated either by the flow of the stream or by a draught animal rotating a horizontal cogged wheel, the drive being transmitted by gearing. There are more than 500,000 such norias as this in the Indian province of Uttar Pradesh alone. Another ancient irrigation device, the Archimedean Screw, widely used in Egypt to this day, has recently been installed at an English plant.

Medieval waterwheels had been powered not only by rivers or channelled millstreams but also by tidal surge - The modern tidal generating plant on the Fiance Estuary between St Malo and Dinard, was near the site of a medieval tidal watermill. Important in this context was the floating mill, possibly derived from the Middle East but certainly used in the 6th century in Rome. Modern engineers had made improvements on this including a version in polystyrene.

For an example of ancient technology fertilising modern technology, M. Gimpel returned to the horizontal waterwheel. Used not only in the East but also in Europe (e.g. Provence) where it is sometimes known as the Norse mill. In the 1830s it provided the inspiration for E. Fourneyron’s development of the first turbine. The lecturer suggested one reason why the horizontal wheel had been little studied might be that, operating usually below ground level within an unremarkable stone or mud built housing it was simply not so noticeable as the vertical wheel. Moreover, to examine the wheel’s action he had found it necessary to climb through the mill stream - a wet and discouraging mode of research, he supposed, for the average academic. In Nepal he had found a local engineer-craftsman who had been willing to improve the local horizontal wheel design by fitting scooped paddles. By the addition of a band drive and bicycle wheel and simple dynamo it was possible to provide electric lighting in remote rural work places. One of the lecturer’s proudest achievements was to have installed a television set for the women and children of a Kenyan village. Walter Kronkite had filmed the event.

M Gimpel, who confessed his preference for women over men in general, stressed the importance of consulting women in third-world countries. Since they did most of the manual work, their ideas were more practical. If women were put in charge of technology in general, things might be altogether better.

M. Gimpel concluded by stressing the scope for adapting early technology to the third-world’s needs. He was hoping to visit China in the Spring. The proposed tour had been welcomed by the Chinese authorities and it was to be hoped would be realised

The lecture was followed by the showing of a sequence of slides from the Carnet of Villard de Honnecourt and photographs from M. Gimpel’s travels which vividly demonstrated many of the points in the lecture and were accompanied, as the talk had been, by the lecturer’s witty asides and diverting reminiscences.-


Thanking M. Gimpel for an extremely entertaining and thought provoking presentation, Dr Crombie opened the brief discussion which followed by describing an instance of the transfer of technology personally known to him. It related to the introduction of techniques of the Green Revolution in India which had produced a major increase in the crop yield in village agriculture thanks in part to official sponsorship but perhaps more to the willingness of the farming community to imitate success on the ground. Among other points raised by speakers from the floor was the central importance of prime-mover technology to the preparation for industrial take off and the question as to whether the general exposure to western-media and the life-styles they presented did not prompt heightened expectations and aspirations even in the third-world’s rural areas which made the alternative/appropriate technological approach as promoted by M. Gimpel less enthusiastically accepted than might otherwise be the case. The lecturer agreed that such problems could arise but in personal experience he had found the immediate response both interested and keen. Following a brief but interesting account of her personal experiences working on a third-world-peasant project by a member of the audience, the formal proceedings concluded at 5.30 p.m. and members of the audience came up to the speaker’s table to put questions personally and examine the models on display more closely.