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China, the mother of world-changing inventions

Published:Sunday | August 14, 2011 | 12:00 AM

The following is another in a series of articles provided by the Jamaica China Friendship Association.

The vast ancient country of China has been the source of some of the world's most important inventions. Many of these have made great contributions to civilisation the world over and some have changed the world forever.

One significant invention was paper. It is recorded that about 40 BC, during the Han Dynasty, the paper-making process was established. However, paper artifacts dating to the second century BC were discovered, the oldest of which was a map. By the third century BC paper as a writing medium was in widespread use in China, replacing bamboo strips, wooden and stone tablets.

Paper making

The ancient paper-making process employed the boiling and pounding of a mixture of tree bark, mainly mulberry, hemp, reeds and water. This mixture was strained then dried into sheets of paper and bleached in the sunlight. Later this product was improved by polishing, glazing and bleaching, producing a smooth, strong paper. Since then, other countries have improved and perfected this invention, and today the world enjoys a wide variety of paper and paper products.

China also invented the art of printing. One of the oldest examples was found in a Korean temple dated 704 AD and a printed scroll dated 868 AD. These were printed using the woodblock technique. The characters were carved into wood blocks and applied by hand - a time-consuming process. It was about 1040 AD that the movable type process was first described - the process of making, typesetting, then breaking up the type for further use. It was not until the late 1300s that the Chinese perfected the use of metal movable type characters. With this came the art of printing books and book-binding. These two inventions were to be matched by the discoveries of Gutenberg in the late 1400s. Modern printing via the computer and other technological devices have replaced all these ancient methods.

The magnetic compass

It is generally accepted that the Chinese invented the magnetic compass. The true significance of this is its importance to navigation, seamanship, map-making, the interaction between countries all over the world and development, giving birth to the renaissance of European civilisation, for example. However, there is some disagreement and discussion as to who really invented the compass. There is evidence that the principle of the compass was in active use in China as early as 2637 BC, and a historian cites the use of a magnetic compass as early as 1110 BC. Modern historical opinion is that beginning around 1000 AD, the Chinese were users of a compass with a magnetised needle. This was, however, used for divination and fortune-telling. The mariner's compass was developed in Europe in the 13th Century, perhaps in Italy, influenced by the earlier Chinese instrument.

The invention of gunpowder was another of the far-reaching Chinese contributions to the world. Sometime during the early Tang Dynasty (600-900 AD ) gunpowder was accidentally discovered by Chinese alchemists while trying to create an elixir of life. A number of elements were being cooked over a fire when an explosion occurred producing bright flashes. Intrigued by this, the chemists began to experiment with variations of the mixture, until they produced what became firecrackers.

It was not used only for amusement. Further work developed powerful explosives, and the killing power of these was soon realised so that as early as 1000 AD, thπΩey were being used in warfare. Incendiary bombs launched by catapults became weapons of choice. This was put in metal tubes with pieces of metal and rock producing a formidable weapon - the forerunner of the gun. It was also used in flame throwers to ignite enemy property. Further development by other countries, mainly in Europe, has resulted in what we have today.