Beginning in the fifteenth century, many European nations began dispatching explorers to investigate other parts of the world. In order to maximize their resources, the Europeans adopted new technology from those with whom they had contact. To safely navigate the Atlantic Ocean, the Europeans began using the astrolobe, which they learned about from the Arabs. This ancient Greek invention allowed them to determine latitude. The Arabs also introduced the Europeans to triangular-shaped sails which allowed them to sail more directly towards their destination. The Europeans also employed the compass which had been invented by the Chinese. These new inventions were introduced to the Europeans through trade and travel which, in turn, allowed them to do exactly that. As the sixteenth century loomed on the horizon, four European nations dominated: England, Spain, France and Portugal. These nations set sail around the globe in search of wealth, resources, land and power.
Prince Henry of Portugal, known as "Henry the Navigator," established a research center to which he invited sailors, cartographers and shipbuilders. This crew began mapping the African coastline in 1420 which also resulted in trade with the local African kingdoms. Perhaps their most valuable discovery of all was that they could cultivate sugarcane on islands; they would do this by using African slaves to work the crops. Thus began the African slave trade.
Their land routes to Asia having been blocked by Mongols and Turks, many Europeans sought a way to get to Asia. Christopher Columbus set out across the Atlantic in search of Asia. His journey was sponsored by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. When he saw and explored San Salvador, Cuba and Hispaniola, Columbus believed that he was in Asia. The work that Columbus had started was finished by Ferdinand Magellan who discovered that one could sail around the southern tip of South America in order to reach Asia. The ocean he discovered on the other side was so calm and peaceful that he named it the Pacific Ocean. Not wanting to be left out of potential trade opportunities, the English sought a northern route to Asia. John Cabot captained a ship in 1497 which discovered not Asia, but Newfoundland and Canada. Spain and England fought for control of the newly discovered lands and their resources. After a series of skirmishes, England defeated the Spanish Armada and gained the confidence to explore without the threat of violence from Spain.
A natural result of the Age of Exploration was the rise of new economic systems in the so-called Commercial Revolution. Mercantilism characterized the Spanish and Portuguese economies. This system is based on amassing gold and silver through importing and exporting. Mercantilism was also based on the idea that colonies played an important role in the system by producing goods and services that are not available in the mother country. Joint-stock companies and cottage industries also characterized this era, both of which benefited only the mother country. The Age of Exploration resulted in a global exchange of goods and services.
The Americas exported to Europe, Asia, and Africa. Among the goods they traded were potatoes, corn, cocoa beans, peanuts, peppers, turkeys, quinine and tobacco. The Americas imported quite a bit from Europe, Asia and Africa including coffee beans, honeybees, sugarcane, olives and citrus fruits. Unfortunately, diseases also accompanied this trade. Smallpox, measles and malaria were among the diseases introduced to people who had no immunity. Millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic died as a result.
The seventeenth century witnessed unprecedented scientific and intellectual discoveries. Many thinkers of this era based their work on that of the Greeks who had made tremendous advances in the ancient world. Astronomy was one field in which Europeans concentrated their efforts. Copernicus, for example, was a Polish mathematician who contradicted the centuries-old theory of Ptolemy that the earth was the center of the universe. Copernicus instead asserted that the sun was at the center of things and he devised a new heliocentric design. Johannes Kepler advanced Copernicus' ideas by claiming that the planets moved around the sun in ellipses rather than circles. Galileo Galilei was also an important figure of this era, discovering that objects fall at the same speed regardless of their weight which refuted Aristotle's notion that the heavier an object is, the faster it falls. Galileo's ideas were believed to be so controversial that he was condemned by the Catholic church. Sir Isaac Newton was able to unify the ideas of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo by introducing the idea of gravity. Other novel concepts developed during this era included rationalism (the idea that reason leads to knowledge) and the scientific method.
Science was not the only area in which great advances were made. Philosophy led to significant changes in ideas about politics and government. "During the Enlightenment, political thinkers tried to apply reason and scientific ideas to government. They claimed that there was a natural law, or a law that applied to everyone and could be understood by reason." Englishman Thomas Hobbes asserted that "natural law made absolute monarchy the best form of government." John Locke, on the other hand, "used natural law to affirm citizens' rights and to make government answerable to the people." French thinker Baron Montesquieu claimed in his writings that the government of England was the best because it had a separation of powers which made the different branches accountable to one another.
Politically, Europe witnessed the Age of Absolutism in which the ruling monarch enjoyed absolute, unlimited power. Nowhere was absolutism more apparent than in France, Russia, and Germany. Louis XIV, the Sun King, ruled France for an unprecedented 72 years. His penchant for overspending ultimately weakened the monarchy and the economy of France. Frederick the Great supported the arts and learning while expanding religious tolerance in Germany and Prussia. Russia's Peter the Great and Catherine the Great controlled the vast empire that was Russia. By the end of Catherine's rule, however, "the ideas of liberty and equality had spread across Europe. These ideas seriously threatened the rule of powerful kings and queens."
Rounding out this era was the start of a conflict in the colonies in America. Unhappy with the reign of England as the "mother country," the colonists were frustrated that they were taxed without representation, among other things. This led to a series of revolts and ultimately, to the War of Independence. On July 4, 1776, Congress set forth the Declaration of Independence which made the United States a sovereign nation free of the yoke of England. In 1789, the Constitution was drafted and ratified.