Invention Highlights During the Middle Ages

Top innovations to come out of the Medieval period

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Though there is a dispute as to the exact years that bookend the Middle Ages, most sources say 500 A.D. to 1450 A.D. Many history books call this time the Dark Ages as it reflected a lull in learning and literacy, but, in fact, there were plenty of inventions and highlights during this time. 

The time period was known for its famine, plague, feuding and warring, namely the biggest period of bloodshed was during the Crusades. The church was the overwhelming power in the West and the most educated people were the clergy. While there was a suppression of knowledge and learning, the Middle Ages continued to be a period full of discovery and innovation, especially in the Far East. A lot of inventions sprouted from Chinese culture. The following highlights range from the year 1000 to 1400.

Paper Money as Currency 

In 1023, the first government-issued paper money was printed in China. Paper money was an innovation that replaced paper money that had been issued by private enterprises in the early 10th century in the Szechuan province. When he returned to Europe, Marco Polo wrote a chapter about paper money, but paper money did not take off in Europe until Sweden began printing paper currency in 1601. 

Movable Type Printing Press 

Although Johannes Gutenberg is usually credited with inventing the first printing press about 400 years later, it was, in fact, Han Chinese innovator Bi Sheng (990–1051) during the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127), who gave us the world's first movable type printing press technology. He printing paper books from ceramic porcelain china materials around 1045.

Magnetic Compass 

The magnetic compass was "rediscovered" in 1182 by the European world for maritime use. Despite European claims to the invention, it was first used by the Chinese around 200 A.D. mainly for fortune-telling. The Chinese used the magnetic compass for sea travel in the 11th century.

Buttons for Clothing

Functional buttons with buttonholes for fastening or closing clothes made their first appearance in Germany in the 13th century. Prior to that time, buttons were ornamental rather than functional. Buttons became widespread with the rise of snug-fitting garments in 13th- and 14th-century Europe.

The use of buttons used as adornment or decoration have been found dating back to the Indus Valley Civilization around 2800 B.C., China around 2000 B.C. and the ancient Roman civilization.

Numbering System 

Italian mathematician, Leonardo Fibonacci introduced the Hindu-Arabic numbering system to the Western World primarily through his composition in 1202 of Liber Abaci, also known as "The Book of Calculation." He also introduced Europe to the sequence of Fibonacci numbers.

Gunpowder Formula 

English scientist, philosopher, and Franciscan friar Roger Bacon were the first European to describe in detail the process of making gunpowder. Passages in his books, the "Opus Majus" and the "Opus Tertium" are usually taken as the first European descriptions of a mixture containing the essential ingredients of gunpowder. It is believed that Bacon most likely witnessed at least one demonstration of Chinese firecrackers, possibly obtained by Franciscans who visited the Mongolian Empire during this period. Among his other ideas, he proposed flying machines and motorized ships and carriages. 


It is hypothesized that the Chinese invented black powder during the 9th century. A couple hundred years later, a gun or firearm was invented by Chinese innovators around 1250 for usage as a signaling and celebration device and remained as such for hundreds of years. The oldest surviving firearm is the Heilongjiang hand cannon, which dates back to 1288.


It is estimated about 1268 in Italy, the earliest version of eyeglasses was invented. They were used by monks and scholars. They were held in front of the eyes or balanced on the nose.

Mechanical Clocks

A major advance occurred with the invention of the verge escapement, which made possible the first mechanical clocks around 1280 in Europe. A verge escapement is a mechanism in a mechanical clock that controls its rate by allowing the gear train to advance at regular intervals or ticks.


The earliest recorded use of windmills found by archaeologists is 1219 in China. Early windmills were used to power grain mills and water pumps. The concept of the windmill spread to Europe after the Crusades. The earliest European designs, documented in 1270. In general, these mills had four blades mounted on a central post. They had a cog and ring gear that translated the horizontal motion of the central shaft into vertical motion for the grindstone or wheel which would then be used for pumping water or grinding grain.

Modern Glassmaking

The 11th century saw the emergence in Germany of new ways of making sheet glass by blowing spheres. The spheres were then formed into cylinders and then cut while still hot, after which the sheets were flattened. This technique was perfected in 13th century Venice around 1295. What made Venetian Murano glass significantly different was that the local quartz pebbles were almost pure silica, which made the clearest and purest glass. The Venetian ability to produce this superior form of glass resulted in a trade advantage over other glass producing lands.

First Sawmill for Shipmaking

In 1328, some historical sources show that a sawmill was developed to form lumber to build ships. A blade is pulled back and forth using a reciprocating saw and water wheel system.

Future Inventions

Future generations built upon the inventions of the past to come up with marvelous devices, some that were unfathomable to the people in the Middle Ages. The following years include lists of those inventions.

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Bellis, Mary. "Invention Highlights During the Middle Ages." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 28). Invention Highlights During the Middle Ages. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Invention Highlights During the Middle Ages." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).