One of the biggest steps in the ascent of man was the rise of the stone mason. Instead of living in caves or houses made of earth, man built his house out of wood and stone and brick. It might seem like a small change but in fact it was huge:
- It marks a new understanding of nature: that it is something you can take apart, understand and then put back together in new ways.
- It allowed the rise of cities: not just physically by providing the necessary buildings but also by giving a new understanding of human society as something made of parts working together.
A city is made up of people who work together in certain ways. In particular:
- division of labour: a man doing one sort of work his whole life and becoming very good at it, perhaps even coming up with new inventions. Not just the masons but other craftsmen too like potters, coppersmiths and weavers.
- chain of command: which allows a city or a people to act as one and achieve things for the greater good, like the control of water by irrigation. Information comes into a commander or ruler at the centre and comands flow out. For it to work you need roads, bridges and messages.
When the Incas fell to the Spanish in 1532 they were at just this stage. Their civilization was cut short before it came up with the wheel, the arch or even writing. They kept records on knotted strings called quipu, but it recorded only numbers not words.
The Greeks, despite their great love of geometry, never came up with the arch. That was a Roman invention. By spreading the load it allowed columns to hold up more weight or be spread farther apart. The Roman arch and later the Arab one were based on the circle.
A thousand years later in the 1100s came the Gothic arch, the oval or pointed arch of the Gothic cathedrals of northern Europe. By spreading the load even farther than the Roman arch, buildings could rise to 40 metres. And since the arches, not the walls, were holding up the building, it made possible huge stained glass windows.
The Gothic arch was the last big breakthrough in architecture till the 1800s with the rise of buildings made with steel frames.
Man built Gothic cathedrals not because he suddenly needed huge, beautiful churches, but because he could. Man loves to make things, so much so that he often makes them better than he has to. That in turn allows things to be used beyond their intended purpose, leading to new ways of doing things – technology.
Taking things apart and putting them back together laid the groundwork for more than just architecture and cities but also for a new understanding of nature - which in time became science.