Historian John Steele Gordon offers Barron’s readers an interesting lesson in the perfection and adaptation of new inventions.

In the 15th century, Europeans brought together three technologies—gunpowder, cannon manufacture, and large oceangoing ships—and used the result to conquer the world. By 1900, all but a handful of countries were either Western themselves or under European control. Yet Westerners had invented none of these technologies. Instead, they perfected them.

It is usually not enough just to invent something. Even the brightest ideas almost always have to be honed and integrated with other technologies to reach their full potential. The automobile, for instance, reached practicality with the invention of the float carburetor in 1885. But the automobile remained nothing more than a rich man’s toy until Henry Ford developed a method of manufacture that brought the price down to within reach of the middle class. It was Henry Ford, not Karl Benz, who changed the world.

Likewise, gunpowder was invented by Chinese alchemists in the ninth century, and it was soon put to use in fireworks, bombs, rockets, and cannons. But while these new weapons terrified enemy soldiers, they didn’t kill all that many of them. Warfare remained largely a business of arrows, swords, and axes. It would be another 500 years before gunpowder weapons reached the point of development that their lethality dominated the battlefield and the boom of guns replaced the clash of steel as the ambient noise of war. …

… While Europe was far less technologically developed than China or the Muslim world at this time, Europeans were world leaders in one technology: bell casting. Great bells hanging in churches and cathedrals were used to summon the faithful to prayer, celebrate victories, and toll the dead. The largest bells could weigh several tons.

It wasn’t long before someone noticed the resemblance between a cannon and a church bell. By the end of the 15th century, muzzle-loading cannons, cast of bronze, were quickly replacing assembled, breech-loading cannons made of wrought iron. They were much more expensive, but much more powerful and much safer.