Three innovations came to pass in the 15th century that forever changed the world and we are still coming to terms with what they wrought. It isn’t that we hadn’t used ships for trade, read books or loaned or borrowed money before, what changed was the volume. Before this century we could trade only a small fraction of what was possible by its end. Books were rare but after 1500 it was possible for families to own their own bibles. Commercial ventures could be financed with a worldwide outlook.
At the beginning of the century the Portuguese used the Caravel to carry out Prince Henry the Navigator’s explorations testing his and others advances in navigation. With extra masts, sails and better rigging these ships were superior to the single mast single sail ships that had gone before, but by the end of the century even this fine ship had been surpassed by the Spanish Carrack. The difference was the Caravel averaged 250 tons and the Carrack quadrupled that to 1,000 tons. These ships could literately go to the ends of the earth. Better still they could bring back tons of whatever they found there. As we have seen, trade is one way to actually get “More.” We know that when we dramatically increase the amount available of anything the price drops making it available to more people. This quantum leap in “More,” drew a greatly increased number of people to engage in trade, manufacturing and services, thereby gaining a share in the increased bounty. “More” began to drop to those lower in the pyramid. The world would be enriched by the spreading availability of commodities such as potatoes and our favorite chili peppers and of course, knowledge is always a hitchhiker on trade.
That knowledge and anything else anyone thought to write down would’ve still been limited to those near the top of the pyramid if it wasn’t for Johannes Gutenberg. It wasn’t that printing was unknown in the world. Printing repetitive patterns on cloth had been done in Asia for centuries. There were even some forms of movable type used there. What Guttenberg perfected was the use of small metal type. Simply, Gutenberg’s innovation was developing a casting system and metal alloys which made production easier, leading to much cheaper books. In order to teach a person to read, you need something for them to read. With an explosion of printed pages, literacy expanded down the pyramid. It is estimated that at the beginning of the Renaissance only 5 to 10% of males were literate. In Cities with a large proportion of merchants the number was greater. Commercially orientated Florence, Italy had a rate of 25 to 35%. This of course is in line with our contention that commerce has always driven language, along with math, and the reading and writing of it. Now vastly more people could participate in any conversation or endeavor. Mankind’s collective mind was exponentially expanded and whatever those minds came up with could easily be communicated to others for enlightenment or collaboration. Humanity whose mental abilities were restricted to at best 5 to 10% of the population was suddenly expanding to the great populace. The collective human mind could expand to its full abilities. In this environment how could innovation not explode?
Ship building, printing presses and all they brought forth required money. As we have seen, “More” up to this point resided at the top of the pyramid to build great edifices and other extravagances and maintain military to either take from others or protect their stuff from being taken. While Royalty could be persuaded to back ventures (think Columbus and King & Queen of Spain), the rapidly expanding commerce needed vastly expanded access to capital. Luckily Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici had founded his Bank in Florence in 1397, just in time contribute mightily to the 15th century breakout. The Bank’s innovations included the foundation of modern accounting, double entry bookkeeping. This Bank and others founded the Capital Markets capable of channeling needed investment capital to the areas lucrative in terms of “More” opened by the new trade routes and knowledge dispersion. Opportunities to gain “More” lost in the past through lack of funding would in the future find investors looking to employ capital profitably on an ever growing scale.
Just as important, the Medicis signaled the change in the relationship between the Ruling and the merchant classes. Heretofore merchants depended on the sufferance of the ruling class to survive. Only by moving when possible to a locale where rulers treated them with a degree of fairness could they exert any influence over their own endeavors. In Florence the merchant class led by the Medicis became the rulers. Rulers instead of imposing their will began looking to them for favor. Rather than Royally Minted coins, the Medicii’s Florin became thecoin of choice. This began the tension between the two classes that lasts to this day. Those who actually produced “More” asked for institutional fairness in laws and taxation that curbed the rulers powers. In the future the the governments that provided the desired structure led the way to greatly increasing “More.”
For a hundred centuries, a relatively small number, usually by heredity, along with those they favored dominated mankind. Even though they were literate and had control of whatever means were available, they produced precious little “More.” After 1500 the idea of the elite few directing all of mankind’s actions would flounder on a rising sea of humanity finding access to rapidly increasing “More.” Nothing would ever be the same. Mankind had finally achieved escape velocity.