Friday, October 12, 2007
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.