Science in the Golden Age made Spain the leading power in the world

José Luis Orella

Spain was one of the great powers at the forefront of technological advances, and Guipúzcoa was one of the spearheads responsible for that development.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain was the world’s leading power. It is impossible to think that a nation which, under the reign of Emperor Carlos, achieved the feat of circumnavigating the world for the first time in the history of mankind, was divorced from science. It is also true that the monarchs, as shrewd and eminently practical people, favoured those branches of technology that had a useful use for their interests: architecture, both civil and military; fortification; artillery; mining engineering; shipbuilding; navigation; cartography, etc.

Juan de Herrera, by Mariano Brandi and José Maea

The antecedent had been instituted by Henry the Navigator in Portugal, when he founded the school of Sagres, where the Portuguese pilots and cartographers were trained, who later provided an overseas empire that would end up united with the Spanish one under the reign of Felipe II. The union would result in the first global empire in history in which those technicians were indispensable. Nicolás García Tapia, engineer and professor of Fluid Mechanics, has discovered in various investigations that these extraordinary “servants of the king” made Spain the first world power with their inventions. Among them is the Italian watchmaker Juanelo Turriano, who, with a model of more than 80,000 pieces, managed to create an ingenious device that brought water from the River Tagus to the city of Toledo. The Aragonese Pedro Juan de Lastanosa, an expert in hydraulic works, who compiled a large number of the inventions of the time, also featured. Another outstanding figure was the architect Juan de Herrera, who set in stone some of the monarch’s dreams, including El Escorial. And we should not forget the Navarrese Jerónimo de Ayanz, an expert in mining engineering, who developed ventilation systems and prototypes for human diving, even proto-submarines.

However, an empire could not develop with just the ingenious ideas of a few courtiers. It needed the formation of technical pedagogical institutions to develop its knowledge, with teachers brought in from all over the world. Thus, under Juan de Herrera, the Royal Academy of Mathematics was founded. Mariano Esteban Piñeiro’s research shows that it was an institution whose purpose was to supply the empire with the mathematical technicians it needed in the arts of navigation, artillery and fortification engineering. The Casa de Contratación of Seville would adopt the Portuguese model, and would become the main training institution for the senior pilots and cartographers whose mission would be to communicate Spain with its overseas empire (America, the Philippines, the Pacific archipelagos, India and Portugal’s African possessions) with the most prestigious teachers. The Council of War also considered the creation of a professorship of mathematics and fortifications to be of importance.

Cover of the book by Pedro Juan de Lastanosa.

On the other hand, the invincible tercios needed a continuous regular supply of men, money, armaments and ammunition. Following María Isabel Vicente Maroto, we know that Burgos and Malaga were the main centres for artillery smelting, gunpowder and ammunition manufacture, where training schools had to be set up. But from the time of the Catholic Monarchs, and later with his great-grandson, Felipe II, they promoted a kind of cluster in the province of Guipúzcoa. The fueros favoured a model of economic development that facilitated the importation of foodstuffs, both from the interior of the peninsula and from the European Atlantic coast, in exchange for the population specialising in essential activities. The forges were dedicated to the supply of metal products for shipbuilding and the armouries were responsible for producing portable weapons and armour for the tercios for two centuries. The presence of forests in the interior of the province provided the opportunity to supply the quality timber essential for shipbuilding. This work facilitated the specialisation of a guild of naval carpenters, who came to build different types of ships according to the needs.

Placencia de las Armas became famous for the manufacture of arquebuses and muskets. From José Garmendia’s research, we know of the importance of the Gipúzcoa armoury, which had orders for three and four thousand arquebuses for the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico). Similarly, the other armoury centre of the province and of the Empire was the town of Tolosa. Thanks to the studies of Ignacio Carrión, we know about the activity of the Tolosa Armoury, which began in 1630. When production was transferred from Eugui (Navarre) – where the material and even some dozens of apprentices were to be taken and which together with the dozen Milanese masters, who had started armour manufacture since 1596, and the local officers – it carried the personal equipment of our armies. The number of people who directly formed the core team of the Armoury can be estimated at around 50.

Image of the Royal Alcazar of Madrid, headquarters of the Academy of Mathematics and Military Architecture.

But the Empire depended on its relationship with America, and for Spain shipbuilding was vital to maintain regular contact with the new continent. To increase the performance of maritime transport, naval experts studied which models should be the best for a transoceanic voyage. The prototypes selected would be proposed to the shipbuilders in order to homogenise the ships participating in the Race of the Indies as much as possible. At that time, the last frontier of technology, like today’s space aeronautics or biotechnology, was naval technology. Spain, together with Portugal, were the two great powers at the forefront of technological advances, and Guipúzcoa was one of the spearheads responsible for that development. For this reason, the first treatises on shipbuilding were written by Spaniards, such as Juan Veas, Juan Escalante and Diego García de Palacio. Felipe II had the merit of founding navies that did not depend on private ownership, but were maintained with public resources and therefore under his control.

The influence of the monarch was decisive. He was in love with mathematics and science and, after the destruction of the famous library of Alexandria by the Muslims, he set up the largest library in the world at El Escorial.


This post was translated from:

Orella, J.L. (2021) ‘La ciencia en el Siglo de Oro hizo de España la primera potencia del mundo’, 30 November. Available at: (Accessed: 6 December 2021).

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