December 23, 2003

Gaps in Ancient Technology

Gaps in ancient technology: the "why didn't they think of that?" department. Eugene Volokh asks a question:

The Volokh Conspiracy: Ancient Rome: I've gotten over 200 responses to my ancient Rome query -- thanks very much for the help; I hope to summarize the results in a week or two. In the meantime, please keep the messages coming. To prevent duplicates (naturally, there've been plenty), let me point out some of the most popular items that people have suggested: stirrups, whipped cream, cowpox as a vaccine for smallpox, penicillin, Arabic numerals, the abacus, sterile technique, distillation, the printing press, the scientific method, pasteurization, the horseshoe, the toothbrush, the compass, the wheelbarrow, glass lenses, gunpowder, soap, and horse plow collars. (Not all of these satisfy my criteria -- among other things, quite a few are the sorts of things that most intelligent laypeople wouldn't know.)

     Here again is the query: I am looking for items that match all of the following conditions, and I'd love some help, if any of you would be kind enough to provide. Which items (products or processes) satisfy all these criteria:
  1. They were unknown to people in ancient Rome circa 150 B.C.
  2. They could be manufactured with then-existing technology and then-available raw materials.
  3. They would be at least modestly useful in that era.
  4. Even a nontechnically minded person today -- say, a smart 12-year-old -- would know how to make and use them. This is particularly important, and one on which many suggestions seem to founder.
  5. Their absence would be pretty clearly visible.
UPDATE: Scratch the abacus -- reader R. Horn points to this picture of a Roman hand abacus. Haven't focused closely enough on it to see whether our modern abacus would be much of an improvement.

Posted by DeLong at December 23, 2003 09:49 AM | TrackBack

Comments

Soap was made by Babylonians well in advance of time frame Volokh mentions. Pliny talks about it and Galen prescribes it but they are both after the time frame.

Posted by: LowLife on December 23, 2003 10:45 AM

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Soap was made by Babylonians well in advance of time frame Volokh mentions. Pliny talks about it and Galen prescribes it but they are both after the time frame.

Posted by: LowLife on December 23, 2003 10:48 AM

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I don't have any good examples, but I think it's worthwhile to make a distinction between those that they just missed somehow and those that require a theoretical leap. Criterion 4 approaches this distinction, but I'm not sure it quite states it.

For instance, I think that stirrups (if the Romans didn't have them) probably don't require a theoretical leap to understand how they work (but maybe some horse person out there will prove me wrong on this). On the other hand, sterile technique looks like the utmost mumbo jumbo until you have a germ theory of disease. Someone might hit on sterilization by accident and keep at it because it works, but without knowing the why of it, it is just as likely to be forgotten.

I think Arthur C. Clarke once pondered whether the ancient Greeks could have invented a wax cylinder phonograph. I would not be surprised if the necessary level of machining would have existed in the classical world (though it'd be a lot more labor intensive). On the other hand, this probably falls into the theoretical leap department. Hmm... the Greeks surely understood string harmonics, but there is a gap between this and the encoding of a general sound wave. So would a wax cylinder phonograph count? (For that matter, did Lucretius have anything to say about sound? He though everything else was some sort of particle, so he would be unlikely to understand the operation of a phonograph, though he would have solid instincts that however it worked, it was not magic.)

Actually, how about Adam Smith's pin factory? Given that this is usual an economics discussion, I'm surprised not to see division of labor on the list.

Posted by: Paul Callahan on December 23, 2003 10:57 AM

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I already suggested the sextant to him. It meets all his criteria (you can make a working one with cardboard, and mirrors).

Posted by: Dick Thompson on December 23, 2003 11:44 AM

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The stirrup. The pendulum clock.

Dick suggested:
"I already suggested the sextant to him."

Wouldn't an astrolabe partially substitute?

Posted by: Tom on December 23, 2003 11:53 AM

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"Vodka, the famous Russian drink, is celebrating 500 years since it was first distilled by monks.

"The clear liquor, these days drunk by people around the world, is thought to have been invented in 1503 by Kremlin monks, who used it as an antiseptic before they started downing it. "

Presumably the monks didn't know about germ theory.

Posted by: David on December 23, 2003 12:20 PM

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To paraphrase Elvis, something's wrong with my link:
http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/europe/10/10/russia.vodka.anniversary/

Posted by: David on December 23, 2003 12:21 PM

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If I recall correctly, it was discovered only recently that the ancient Romans wore socks.

'ow 'bout gloves? Did they have them? If they didn't, then I think we have an item.

(They did have the bra, I think, or some approximation of it, since ancient Greece.)

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 23, 2003 12:55 PM

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I think almost any invention of the early industrial era would satisfy the original query. The ancients were aware of the principle of steam power, but did not see how to make practical use of it. So put down effective steam engines. Also, algebra.

The ancient Greeks apparently invented printing. Their problem was that they hadn't invented paper. I think this is discussed in "Guns, Germs and Steel". Hence, paper fits the original query.

Division of labor was well established in the ancient world. Anything beyond the most primitive hunter-gatherer culture uses division of labor. Adam Smith was merely describing something that was well known and understood by his time.

Posted by: G Caldwell on December 23, 2003 01:45 PM

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My SCA friends inform me that pockets are a relatively recent invention (i.e. late medieval or early renaissance period) but I don't have any real dates.

Posted by: EKR on December 23, 2003 02:13 PM

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What about the copper IUD (the birth control device) ? It's very effective and very simple technology (developed around the turn of the 20th century).

Posted by: SJS on December 23, 2003 03:38 PM

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> If I recall correctly, it was discovered only recently that the ancient Romans wore socks.

Did they wear them under their sandals? If so, can they be credited with the invention of "geek chic"?

Posted by: Paul Callahan on December 23, 2003 03:41 PM

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'I think almost any invention of the early industrial era would satisfy the original query. The ancients were aware of the principle of steam power, but did not see how to make practical use of it. So put down effective steam engines.'

But they weren't practical - then. It's a waste of perfectly good slaves to put steam pumps in mines, and it would have cost fuel rather than grain tribute, and so on. It would have been useful to have steam ships in 150 B.C., for war purposes, but that level of sophistication would have involved a technological jump. (Even our own steam age needed the shock of the Napoleonic Wars to accelerate beyond a tipping point - its early phases could too easily have become a bubble.)

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence on December 23, 2003 04:50 PM

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The ancient Greeks knew geometrical optics (including reflection but not refraction, though I have a dim memory from physics class that they had some approximation to Snell's Law) -- but if they ever made a camera obscura, or perspective drawing, or mirror-based telescopes, I haven't heard of it. That seems like a great missed opportunity to me.

Posted by: Darius Bacon on December 23, 2003 07:33 PM

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Paul Callahan:

Yep. They wore it with the sandals, archeologists suspect. Here is the story: Socks-appeal of ancient Rome!

http://www.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,4057,7078174%255E13780,00.htm

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 23, 2003 07:43 PM

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False teeth? I was going to guess rubbers, but item 5 took that one off the table.

Posted by: bobbyp on December 23, 2003 10:11 PM

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Hot air balloons.

Before the Romans, the ancient Egyptians could
have constructed a hot air balloon by
collecting smoke in a big bag. They had the
linen and the rich who could pay for the cost.

The Montgolfier brothers built the first hot
air balloon in 1784 according to this
erroneous theory.

Hot air balloons had two uses in the 19th
century: the most significant was
entertainment at public events. The other was
military observation.

Romans and other ancients could also have
constructed simple gliders using cloth and
crossed sticks, Rogallo wings. However,
gliders are harder to invent, since their
design requires more insight than that of a
balloon, which only involves the notion of
capturing rising smoke in a big bag.

The Rogallo wing is like a slide rule or
planimeter: obvious and simple once invented,
but hard to imagine in the first place.


Posted by: Robert J. Chassell on December 24, 2003 04:35 AM

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Smoke signals, a la Algonkin.

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 24, 2003 05:12 AM

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a simple microscope a la the dutchman in the XVII C a tiny bead of glass. If your U glassblower would make some for you you could have you child make one. The other thing was buttons and button holes.

Posted by: big al on December 24, 2003 06:07 AM

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Eugene Volokh mentions

"... the printing press (though presumably
that would take tinkering to find suitable
inks)...."

The printing press, with moveable type, is a
more difficult device to imagine or construct
than carved wood blocks.

Certainly, ancient Romans could cut wood
blocks flat and then carve them. As far as I
know, you can base a usable ink on olive oil
and ground charcoal. The key is to print a
mirror image. This requires having thought
about what was at that time, the relatively
new fangled invention (i.e., several centuries
old), the mirror.

The next step is engraving on a flat copper
plate, using a diamond for scratching. I
think, but do not know, whether you could
succeed with an ink based on olive oil and
ground charcoal. The ink sits in the
indentations rather than on the surface of the
exdentations.

You can make flat surfaces by grinding three
surfaces together -- this requires geometrical
thought, but has been technically feasable
from a time long before the ancient Egyptians.

You can print playing cards with wood blocks.
In the Middle Ages, words were too expensive
for wood block printing. Too much carving.

You can print Euclid's Elements with copper
plate engraving. More significantly, with a
diamond stylus, words become less expensive.
You can reproduce Homer and Sappho. Sales
depend on how good your mirror hand writing
is. Naturally, you use papyrus and large
letters, so runny ink and absorbant paper is
not too much of a problem.

If you are a government, you can do what the
ancient Chinese did, and engrave laws on
stone. You can then make duplicates to send
to the provinces using the technique of
`rubbing'. (A notice in the Museum of Stele
in Xi'an, China, said that the Chinese
practiced rubbing in 600 AD on the earlest
stones they had in the museum.)


Posted by: Robert J. Chassell on December 24, 2003 07:02 AM

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Replacing a capstan with a crank would have been a major savings in materials ...

Posted by: Pouncer on December 24, 2003 09:05 AM

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This whole thread strikes me as a non-starter...

It shouldn't be a mystery to anyone that the what was emergeing in 150 BC to be the most powerful state in Western Civilization after it's ascendancy devoted remarkably little of it's surplus to technical innovation. The mode of production of the Rome was grounded in slave labour. This was not technically efficient but it was socially very efficient and self-reinforcing.

Besides if it aint broke don't fix it. If breaking the backs of masses of humanity is a horrible way to engage in agriculture oh well, these slaves are easy to come by and its not my problem anyway. With a few exceptions technical innovation breeds social change and that is to be avoided.


I personally feel Perry Anderson put this to rest in . DeTocqueville has some similar argument about the American South in Democracy in America. Why do you think the inventor of the Cotton Gin was a guy from Massachusetts?

Posted by: Michael Carroll on December 24, 2003 10:30 AM

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Sorry,

The Perry Anderson reference is:

"Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism"

Posted by: Michael Carroll on December 24, 2003 10:44 AM

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Signal towers with large mirrors for the transmission of information in a code vaguely akin to Morse.

Recurved bows (probably existed elsewhere).

Movable type would be rather difficult, but vaguely possible, I think. Vaguely.

Container ships (of course, I've been wondering why it took us so very long to think of them in the first place).

Division of labor in the largest cities -- things like industrial ovens for state-distributed bread, et cetera.

Mendelian genetics (another on the list of "why did it take us so long?").

Mozzarella sticks. ;)

Posted by: Kimmitt on December 24, 2003 11:09 AM

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"... With a few exceptions technical innovation breeds social change..."

Helloooo, Michael Carroll! Glad you're on this blog!

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 24, 2003 12:39 PM

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>


Bulent

I'm not meaning to state the obvious, rather I'm just short handing what I'd think was the attitude of a Roman patrician towards technical change. That idea isn't so obvious and its a point worth arguement.

Posted by: Michael Carroll on December 24, 2003 06:47 PM

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But you got the warm hello for writing what I quoted from you ("... With a few exceptions technical innovation breeds social change...") and not for your opinion /conjecture concerning ancient Roman attitude towards technical change.

Unfortunately, few seem to understand the fact you observe and call obvious, about technical innovaiton breeding social change, even many who instinctively but actively oppose tehnical advances and new technologies.

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 25, 2003 01:22 PM

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The screw thread?

Arguably the water screw, attributed to Archimedes, shows awareness of the screw -- which is, after all a form of inclined plane, one of the classical Archimedean machines. The production of nuts and bolts, however, is a recent phenomenon, dependent, I believe, on negative-feedback self-correcting machine tools. Nails can be produced by hand, and for centuries were. Scrws, bolts and nuts can't.

Googling I now find at http://www.abc.net.au/science/k2/trek/4wd/nuts1.htm that wood screws, made by winding wire around a core, existed for a while under the Romans and then vanished until the 15th century.

Posted by: David Lloyd-Jones on December 25, 2003 04:41 PM

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The cork, with its ability to expand to firm up a container's seal. The book or codex random access format for script (as opposed to the sequential access scroll). The fore and aft sailing rig.

Possibly, Greek Fire and bureaucratic refinements like the Byzantine kapnikon or hearth tax, though I'm not sure they pass the twelve year old test. That is, I'm sure there are some latter day infant Asimovs or Feynmans around who know them already, but the odds are against a common or garden twelve year old off the street already knowing them although I do think one could follow them if they were shown carefully.

By the way, Leo Frankowski's alternate history novels outline a low technology way to bootstrap making nuts and bolts. It's clearly an adaptation of the method used to make the special purpose machine tools that made the first proper diffraction gratings.

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence on December 26, 2003 05:27 PM

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Some belated afterthoughts apropos reading Xmas gift books: the codex book (as against the scroll), the title page, word spacing, punctuation marks, minuscule letters, alphabetic indexing. All these aid the ease of reading tremendously.

Posted by: Tom Schweitzer on January 1, 2004 09:18 AM

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Some belated afterthoughts apropos reading Xmas gift books: the codex book (as against the scroll), the title page, word spacing, punctuation marks, minuscule letters, alphabetic indexing. All these aid the ease of reading tremendously.

Posted by: Tom Schweitzer on January 1, 2004 09:21 AM

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