The Clock and the Camshaft


The Clock and the CamshaftEmphasize the significance of medieval advancements as the underpinning for subsequent technological advancement. This account of medieval breakthroughs, concentrating on the period from the 11th to the 14th centuries, vividly depicts a flourishing epoch of human creativity–with enduring repercussions even today. From the mechanical clock to the inaugural eyeglasses, both of which brought about transformative shifts in society, numerous everyday contrivances we presently consider routine can trace their origins back to the Middle Ages. Presented in ten thematic sections, the approachable text enables readers to explore specific areas of interest or follow the narrative chronologically for a comprehensive historical panorama.

A dedicated chapter on the paper revolution underscores how innovations in milling power facilitated the widespread production of affordable paper, a pivotal factor in the subsequent success of the printing press, making books more accessible to a broader audience. Another section delves into the significance of Islamic civilization in safeguarding ancient Greek manuscripts and highlights the efforts of translation teams in Sicily and Spain who made these texts available in Latin for a European readership. The exploration of navigational instruments in another chapter underscores the influence of the imported astrolabe from Islamic lands and the compass, an original Chinese invention. These tools, along with advancements in shipbuilding, spurred the expansion of European trade and facilitated the age of discovery during Columbus’ time.

Enhanced with original illustrations depicting the mechanics of these early inventions, this guided journey through a distant era unveils how medieval farmers, artisans, female craftspeople, and scholarly clerics laid the groundwork for the modern world.

Editorial Reviews

“Medieval inventions were both homegrown –like the windmill –and imported from the Arab east, where advanced mathematics like algebra made it possible to fashion a new science of astronomy based on a calculating device –like the astrolabe. Even more transformative was the mechanical clock of the thirteenth century, which generated such features of modernity as precision measurement, and the legal revolution which enabled the formation of corporate units with legal personality. John Farrell’s account of medieval inventions and inventivity is as varied as the medieval world itself.”
Thomas F. Glick, Emeritus Professor of History at Boston University and historian of technology

“John Farrell’s remarkable excursion through scores of medieval inventions proves, beyond any doubt, that every aspect of modern technology has its roots in the past. Be prepared for a surprising introduction to some of the fascinating inventions –and fascinating minds –of the so-called Middle Ages. A great read!”
Kenneth R. Miller, Professor of Biology, Brown University and author of Finding Darwin’s God and Only a Theory

“The urge to innovate wasn’t invented in Silicon Valley. As John Farrell’s fascinating book demonstrates, even the more leisurely rhythms of the Middle Ages led to a plethora of inventions, from mass-produced paper to horological escapements. It’s eye-opening to read about the innovations that continue to prove their value today.”–Sean Carroll, author of Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime

The Clock and the Camshaft by John Farrell
Genre: Non-Fiction
Age Range: Adult
Start Rating: 4.2 stars
Publication Date: 21st May 2020
ISBN13: 978-1633885721
John W. Farrell

John W. Farrell

John W Farrell is a writer and producer working in Boston. He is the author most recently of The Clock and the Camshaft just out from Prometheus Books, as well as The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaître, Einstein, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology from Basic Books. A graduate of Harvard College with a B.A. in English and American Literature, Farrell has written for Aeon, Commonweal, Cosmos Magazine, New Scientist, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Boston GlobeSalonNational Review, Nautilus, and The Tablet of London. He was a 2010 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion. His latest book, The Clock and the Camshaft, and Other Medieval Inventions We Still Can’t Live Without has just been published by Prometheus Books.


  • John W Farrell – Home. (2023).

  • The Clock and the Camshaft: Farrell, John: 9781633885721: Books. (2023).

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