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Impacts of 15th- and 16th-Century Advances on Exploration and Trade

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Nicholas Chechak

on 5 September 2013

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Transcript of Impacts of 15th- and 16th-Century Advances on Exploration and Trade

Impacts of 15th- and 16th-Century Advances on Exploration and Trade
Mariner's Astrolabe Allows for Accurate Seafaring Navigation in All Four Hemispheres
More Detailed Maps Provide Precise Depictions of the Earth
Advancements in Sailing and Shipbuilding Technology Make for More Capable Ships

Prior to the Age of Exploration, Europeans' most common method of maritime navigation was that of using a quadrant to determine the angle of inclination from their position to the Pole Star, Polaris, thus indicating their latitude. This system, though fairly accurate, required very precise positioning of the quadrant, and was consequently extremely difficult to perform at sea. Wind conditions, coupled with the bobbing motion of ships at sea, rendered the quadrant a highly impractical navigational device on the water.

As the Portuguese began their methodical expeditions of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in the early fifteenth century, they had already begun using the astrolabe as a means of navigation. The astrolabe, originally meant as a means of tracking the celestial bodies,had started to replace the quadrant as the Europeans' main means of navigation. However, due to several key design characteristics, it still showed many of the flaws inherent in the quadrant. Portugal's heavy emphasis on exploration led to a gradual perfection of the astrolabe for sea use, eventually resulting in a device known as the Mariner's Astrolabe. Though more precise navigational devices were developed later, the Mariner's Astrolabe proved very useful in its time, remaining in use for almost 300 years, from the fifteenth to the end of the seventeenth century. Below is a comparison of a traditional astrolabe and a common Mariner's Astrolabe, showing several improvements made to the Mariner's Astrolabe over the original.
Mariner's Astrolabe
Holes to allow airflow, easing use in windy conditions
Brass frame for increased weight, raising inertia and thus reducing motion
More brass at bottom to make astrolabe bottom-heavy, and consequently more stable
By making maritime navigation simpler and far more accurate, the Mariner's Astrolabe allowed European sailors to more easily venture out into unknown territories while maintaining knowledge of their position, making exploration by sea less challenging. Furthermore, with more precise navigational equipment, sailors could more easily follow overseas trade routes, lessening shipping time and increasing profits.
The Influence
The most common maps among sailors before the Renaissance were small, highly detailed charts known as portolani. Based mainly around the locations of ports and harbors, these charts were great improvements over the simple twelfth-century maps that preceded them and fine resources for voyages across the seas of Europe. However, as Europeans started to explore Africa and the Middle East with expeditions of much greater length, these portolani began to show their limitations. They failed to represent the Earth's curvature, rendering them useless for voyages of any large lengths.
The longer voyages being undertaken by Europeans at the beginning of the fifteenth century forced European cartography to develop. European maps were now not only including Asia and Africa for the first time, but had also begun to more accurately represent distances and curvature. One of the biggest developments in European maps at this time was the first Latin translation of the Greek cartographer Ptolemy's Geography - an all-encompassing world atlas that had recently made its way from the Islamic world back into Europe through Constantinople. The recent innovations in printing at this time led to many printed copies of Geography and other such maps being made, making maps both more consistently accurate and more abundant, especially in comparison with the hand-drawn portolani.
A renaissance-era copy of the world map from Ptolemy's Geography, displaying Africa, Asia, and Europe. Though not nearly a perfect representation of Earth (it depicts the Atlantic as being only slightly larger than the Mediterranean), it was regarded as the most accurate map of its time.
Improved maps were instrumental to European exploration and trade in the Age of Discovery in the same way as the Mariner's Astrolabe: they allowed for more easier and more precise navigation and provided sailors with better knowledge of their surroundings. These advantages made for faster shipping, and influenced more Europeans to try their hands at journeying to far away nations. With better (and more) navigational equipment, long voyages, whether for economic or exploratory purposes, became far less challenging.
The Influence
While European ships of the Middle Ages were plenty capable for trips across the Mediterranean or the North Sea, they began to show the strain on long expeditions. Many utilized square rigged sails, which made them inefficient for sailing into the wind. They also proved to be lower in carrying capacity than required for trans-continental trade, and slightly too weak for the huge distances being undertaken by explorers at the time. Though ships like that of the twelfth-century cog were satisfactory during the Middle Ages, it was clear that new ships and mechanisms would have to be created to meet the needs of the Renaissance.
During the early fifteenth century, the use of lateen, or triangular, sails, had become increasingly widespread, and by the 1430s, shipbuilders had begun to couple them with square sails to produce ships that had both the maneuverability and against-the-wind sailing ability provided by the lateen sails, but did not require as large a crew as the ones needed by ships powered only by lateen sails. In addition, the Portuguese had developed two new types of ships capable of surviving their long expeditions: the Galleon, a huge ship with multiple decks suitable for holding cannons evolved from the Carrack of the Middle Ages, and the Caravel, a small, agile, and durable ship perfect for use by explorers such as Columbus. These ships became commonplace among the fleets of European ships sent around the world during the Renaissance. The aforementioned innovations were compounded by the use of new rudders from China. Thus, by the mid-fifteenth century, Europeans had produced ships that were stronger, faster, and more efficient than ever before.
The compact, lightweight Caravel (left) stands in stark contrast to the massive Galleon (right), though they were both equally important to European nations in the Age of Discovery.
The creation of stronger, quicker, and more capacious was of great significance to European exploration in that it allowed European nations to take up the challenges of greater voyages. The lengthy trade and exploratory journeys of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries simply would not have been possible with the ships of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The improved ships of the fifteenth century truly opened up the possibility of trans-continental sea travel.
The Influence
Advancements in Printing Make for Easier Access to Maps and Information
Up until the Renaissance, the main method of printing in Europe was that of using woodcut blocks - carving images or text into a wooden block, covering the block with ink, and hammering or rubbing the ink from the wood onto a piece of cloth or parchment, producing a reproduction of the image on the wood. Though it produced very detailed images, this method of printing took time, which consequently resulted in lower numbers of prints and higher prices. For most of the Middle Ages, this restricted access to information to nobles and scholars.
The invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century by Johannes Gutenberg of Germany introduced Europe to movable type - a much more efficient, much faster method of book production. The printing press ushered in a new era, allowing thousands of copies of books and manuscripts to be made, and thus lowering their costs significantly. For the first time, the everyman had access to books, and, consequently, knowledge.
A sketch of the Gutenberg printing press.
The ability of the common man to access books was first brought about by the printing press, and created a revolution in information distribution. In terms of exploration and trade, this had a huge effect. Access to information about new lands to the East and West piqued interest in exploration, and even influenced many men to explore the seas themselves.
The Influence
In Summary...
Mariner's Astrolabe and Improved Maps provided more precise navigation, allowing for easier following of trade routes and simpler exploration
Stronger, faster, ships with larger carrying capacities made trans-continental voyages possible
Printing press provides more universal access to information about newly discovered lands, influencing more Europeans to explore
Aber, James. "History of Maps and Cartography." Academia.Emporia.edu. N.p., 2008. Web. 31 Aug. 2013.

Bellis, Mary. "Johannes Gutenberg and the Printing Press." About.com Inventors. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Aug. 2013.

Morrison, James E. "The Mariner's Astrolabe." Astrolabes.org. N.p., 5 June 2002. Web. 31 Aug. 2013.

Ossian, Robert. "The Quadrant." Thepirateking.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Aug. 2013.

Spate, Oskar. "Renaissance Ships and Navigation." Epress.anu.edu.au. Australian National University, n.d. Web. 31 Aug. 2013.

Spielvogel, Jackson J. "Europe and the New World: New Encounters, 1500-1800." Western Civilization. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2010. 411-12. Print.

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By Nick Chechak
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