Today, high technology in AD 1200. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The year is 1198. The place
is Monkton, England -- a town on an island off the
coast of Kent. It isn't far from Canterbury
Cathedral, where Thomas à Becket was
murdered 28 years before. English monks have a
monastery there. They've set up a water wheel to
Now hi-tech comes to Kent. Windmills were the new
power source. They'd appeared about 20 years
before. They outperformed water wheels. Now they
were sprouting everywhere.
A man named William Wade got into the act. He built
a windmill near the monastery. The problem was, he
built on land his uncle had sold to the monastery
back in Becket's time. Wade had always disputed the
sale. He figured the land was still his.
The monastery had been slipping. It'd once had 140
monks. Now there were fewer than 100. When the
windmill went in next door the monks were furious.
They were far more angry about the competitive
technology than they were about encroachment on
So they took William to court. By now, the Norman
administration had created legal logjams that rival
the ones we see today. First the monks went to the
local manorial court. Then the case got bumped up
to the Royal Court.
The Royal Court found against William. They ordered
him to tear down his mill. About this time King
Richard was assasinated. So William crossed the
English Channel and went to King John in Normandy.
He offered the King ten marks to confirm his right
to operate the mill. This was a small potatoes
transaction, and the King said, "OK."
The monks were patient. They opened another suit
charging that William had deceived King John. He
hadn't mentioned the judgment pending against him.
By the year 1203, a priory court in Canterbury
found against William again. This time he agreed to
tear down his mill and return the land to the
But he didn't do it. By the year 1205, the case was
back in King John's court. And there William
finally lost his case -- and his windmill -- after
six long years of litigation.
Of course, not long after all this foofaraw the
Monkton monks themselves began building windmills.
In fact, while the fuss was going on, a group of
nuns near Canterbury had already begun building
their own windmill. They needed it to grind grain
for their cloister and their hospital.
And so, gentle listener, that is how high
technology finally did come to Canterbury in the
year of our Lord 1200.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds