Today, stirrups revisited. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
By now, anyone who's studied
medieval history has encountered Lynn White's
argument that an energetic western culture began
with the stirrup. In 1962, White's book,
Medieval Technology and Social Change,
told how the Frankish king, Charles Martel,
recognized the military potential of stirruped
horsemen in 742 AD. After that, horse breeding
greatly increased. The horse was integrated into
agriculture, and the seeds of a new power
technology were sown.
Another book also came out in 1962: The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas
Kuhn. Kuhn described how science develops, not by
accretion, but by replacement — by
paradigm replacement. After Kuhn,
paradigm found a new place in our
I realize how cautious I need to be about using
superlatives; but I really believe that these have
been the two most significant works of history
since WW-II. They redirected historical thinking.
Of course they also became lightning rods for
criticism. The game of trying to topple these two
giants has been unabated for forty years. In 1997,
for example, Rice University devoted a
semester-long public seminar series to
Both books were audacious. Both made fearless
generalizations. Both clearly were flawed in many
ways. Both have been dented by their critics. And
both remain standing. They remind me of yet another
book: Darwin's On the Origin of Species.
I'm astonished by people who try to refute natural
selection by going back to Darwin himself. Never
mind that we've spent a century and a half weaving
the connecting tissue of evolution by natural
selection. You'd think Darwin had written the
last word on the subject, not the
Perhaps the villain in all this is our need to pin
everything on one creator genius — Einstein,
Edison, Bell. That erases all the labor needed to
complete any really good idea. Thomas Kuhn is far
from the only reason we've put aside our old ideas
about standing on the shoulders of giants to build
science, brick upon brick. As Kuhn's detractors
have gone at him, and stripped him of his original
hyperbole, they've left him much stronger.
Now historian Alex Roland goes back to look at
White's book. He treats White's critics with
patience and with a solid understanding. They've filled
in blanks and corrected errors. By subjecting a
grand generalization to a vigorous shaking, Rowland
says, they've reasserted its importance.
Kuhn, White, and Darwin are fine reminders that
nothing is finished in its first incarnation. Did
the Wright Brothers get it wrong because they put
the tail in front? Was Edison wrong to record on a wax cylinder instead of a CD? I suppose if we
need to be absolutely right, we'll shy away
from any of our important progenitors. But, if we
want to see creative change in full flower, we have
to go to the delicious flawed beginnings.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
A. Roland, Once more into the Stirrups.
Technology and Culture, Vol. 44, No. 3, July
2003, pp. 574-585.
White, L., Jr., Medieval Technology and Social
Change. New York: Oxford University Press,
1966. (first published in 1962.)
Kuhn, T. S., The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions. Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 1970. (first published in 1962.)
C. Darwin, On the Origin of Species. New
York: Modern Library, 1990. (first published in
1859.) You may read this on line at:
A medieval war saddle with stirrups.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.