Ten Medieval Inventions that Changed the World

Ten Inventions from the Middle Ages that have had lasting importance, even to the present day.

1. Mechanical Clock

Timekeeping devices have emerged since the ancient world, but it was not until the Middle Ages that the technology was invented that allowed for mechanical clocks to accurately keep track of time. The knowledge of not only what hour it was, but even what minute and second it was, would change the way people scheduled their days and work patterns, especially in urban areas.


2. Printing Press

While printing technology had been developed in 11th century China, it was the 15th century German Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press that started a new era of the mass production of books. Until the rise of computers in the 20th century, books and the printed word would remain the dominant form of media for the world’s knowledge.

3. Gunpowder

Gunpowder was invented in China sometime between the 9th and 11th centuries, and it did not take long to be used in weapons. As the Mongols spread the invention’s knowledge throughout Eurasia in the 13th century, it would revolutionize warfare and make previous military technology and many medieval castles obsolete.


4. Water and Wind Mills

German post mill, depiction from the 15th century. – Wikimedia Commons

While mills were in use from antiquity, it would be in the Early Middle Ages that they became very popular. Throughout the medieval period, new and ingenious forms of mills were invented, which allowed people to harness the energy from natural forces like rivers and wind, a process that continues to the present day.

5. Coffee House

It did not take long after the drink of coffee emerged in 15th century Arabia that coffee houses became popular in Arabic and Ottoman lands. These kinds of establishments would spread into Europe during the early modern era, changing not only how people ate and drank, but creating new ways of social interaction.

6. Eyeglasses

Although we are not sure who can be credited with the invention of eyeglasses, this device could be found in Western Europe in the latter years of the 13th century. Its ability to correct vision problems makes it a much it one of the most useful medieval inventions and a great benefit to hundreds of millions of people today.

7. Public Library

The Library of Malatesta Novello in Cesena, Italy is considered to be the first-ever public library in the world. Opened in 1452, the building was owned by the city commune and allowed readers to freely make use of its collection. Today, public libraries are common throughout much of the world and considered a cornerstone of information technology.


8. Flying Buttress

One of the architectural innovations associated with Gothic churches from the 12th century, the flying buttress allowed buildings to have much higher ceilings, thinner walls and larger windows. The ideas behind these innovations would influence architectural design into modern times and allow for the construction of larger and more spacious buildings.

9. Paper money

The first known version of paper money dates back to seventh-century China. It has a very important advantage over coins made from precious metals – they were much easier to transport around, which proved to be a great benefit to merchants. However, the concept of placing value on a marked piece of paper was slow to catch on. In the 13th century the Mongols tried to introduce paper money into the Middle East, but it became an immediate failure. It would take until the 17th century before regular banknotes would be circulating in Europe, but it is now the common way currency is issued.

10. Quadrant and Astrolabe

While these devices were known about in ancient times, it was during the Middle Ages that Arabic astronomers refined and improved upon them. Being able to measure the distance between two objects, they proved to be useful instruments in astronomy, navigation and surveying. Eventually these devices would be replaced by more modern inventions, but the concepts behind the quadrant and astrolabe have remained important for science and technology.


Learn more:

Time and Clocks in the Middle Ages

The Printing Press: As An Agent of Social Change

The civil uses of gunpowder: demolishing, quarrying, and mining (15th-18th centuries). A reappraisal

The role of the monasteries in the development of medieval milling

Spectacles through the ages and period inaccuracies

Salisbury Cathedral and Its Diversity of Flying Buttresses

Building a Model Astrolabe