Friday, October 12, 2007

Ancient Technology

I'm usually skeptical when I watch some History Channel cheapie about ancient trans-Atlantic journeys or whatever, but the evidence in this case is incontrovertible: the ancient Greeks knew how to build clocks, with gears and all. Only two examples exist, but they're too sophisticated to have been the only ones of their kind. How could this knowledge have been lost? John Seabrook suggests a number of reasons: not many people would have possessed such knowledge, and if social upheavals separated them from the opportunity to use the knowledge, the clocks would have ended up as scrap, and melted down; both Greek and Roman culture respected individual bravery too much to commit itself to technologizing warfare; technology may have provided delight rather than profit. Moreover, the knowledge almost surely ended up with the Arabs, whence it returned to Europe in the 14th century, when clocks with gears suddenly (re)appear. It's easy to suspect that the West refuses to admit just how advanced Muslim civilization was, but something more peculiar is going on here: even classicists showed little interest in the Antikythera Mechanism until recently. It's as though we think that only we are capable of technology per se. The Greeks had some impressive mechanisms, but didn't put them to uses we respect.


George said...

You wrote: "...both Greek and Roman culture respected individual bravery too much to ever commit itself to technologizing warfare..."

Uh, these are the same Greeks who took the ideas of Archimedes seriously enough to arrange polished shields to burn incoming ships (the SDI of their day).

And it was definitely a Roman general who said, "More wars are won with the shovel than with the sword." (I'm passing up this opportunity to be Google-brilliant; you can search for yourself.) The Celts were way more into individual bravery than the Romans, who excelled at bureaucracy and logistics. Result: the Romans ended up with southern Europe and the Mediterranean, and the Celts got Ireland.

I don't think all advances in thought are necessarily practical, but it seems like it's very difficult to keep good ideas from eventually becoming practical -- witness the apparently impractical number theory of 1920 becoming the indispensable cryptography of 2000. Or the laser, which was invented simply as a cool idea, and was almost immediately applied to dozens of practical problems a year.

Anyway, the stereotype I was fed was that the Greeks were into theory and knowledge for its own sake, whereas the Romans were into practical applications, so when the Romans took over (inevitable, as more wars are won with the shovel than with the aeolipile), science-like progress halted and engineering proceeded apace.

SlideGuitarist said...

Yeah, that was sloppy. Now labor-saving devices might not have interested a slave-holding society, but who knows? Apropos of the Celts, who are they supposed to be, exactly?