Searching for the Origin of Today’s Technology in the Middle Ages

May 9, 2022
Hosted by Ron Roel

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Episode Description

Over the last half century, we’ve witnessed a blizzard of technological advances that have had a profound impact on our daily lives. But if we take the time to reflect for a moment, and look around at the commonplace devices we take for granted, we would discover that many of them had their origin during an era we don’t normally associate with innovation—the Middle Ages. In today’s episode, author and producer John W. Farrell takes us through a fascinating series of stories in his book, “The Clock and the Camshaft,” that describe how dozens of inventions that are part of virtually every aspect of contemporary technology had their roots in medieval times, between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. John takes us behind the invention of a key mechanism leading to the mechanical clock—perhaps as a means of automating the ringing of church bells. He’ll explain how cylindrical axles know as camshafts originated in windmills—centuries before they evolved into a key component of internal combustion engines. He’ll take us through architectural innovations like the flying buttresses, which allowed the design of grand cathedrals that dwarfed buildings of the Roman empire. Then there were social inventions such as universities, ignited by the popes as a way to protect the church against the power of European monarchs. And the mariner’s astrolabe and the compass—tools that helped spur the expansion of European trade and enabled navigators like Columbus to take real chances outside the comfortable commerce between Mediterranean port cities. Perhaps most remarkable theme throughout John Farrell’s stories is the refreshing discovery that many of the world’s most important inventions were not only due to the ingenuity and hard work of prominent individuals, but thanks to the work of everyday people whose names may be unknown, but whose legacy laid the foundations of the modern world.

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Ron Roel

Ron Roel

I’m a veteran journalist who spent a wide-ranging career covering business, politics and social issues, the last two decades focusing on the blend of diverse life skills I call successful aging.

I have written extensively on aging topics, spoken at conferences, radio and TV shows, and launched several entrepreneurial ventures, discovering along the way that the path to aging well also requires an unexpected entrepreneurial vision. I spent 20 years as a writer and editor at Long Island’s daily newspaper, Newsday, helping to found Act 2, a weekly section for 50-plus readers. I created Roelresources.com, a website offering practical advice and inspirational essays for people ages 40 and above. I have been a volunteer and consultant to AARP Long Island, writing articles, advocating for seniors, and developing action plans for the AARP Age-Friendly Communities initiative.

I am active in programs and organizations that support seniors, such as the National Aging In Place Council and the Senior Umbrella Network. I have developed a special expertise in family caregiving, as one of four brothers who took care of their mother for almost 25 years. I regularly collaborate with many professionals who provide services and support for older Americans, and I am completing a book for caregivers on Long Island, “The Caregiving Navigator/How to Plan, What to do, and Where to Turn When Caring for you Aging Loved Ones. And Yourself,” scheduled for publication in early 2021.

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Episode Directory

May 2022

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  • 5/9/2022: Searching for the Origin of Today’s Technology in the Middle Ages Listen Now
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