Thursday, November 18, 2010

Engineering in the Ancient World

Written by CarpeCyprinidas

There's really only one practical reason to read this book by J. G. Landels:

Zombie apocalypse/other doomsday scenario that reduces civilization to ruins.
When a dark age comes along, there have to be a few prepared to deal with the real world as the rest of us recover from the shell-shock of a post-internet world. Knowing how to build a basic man-powered crane to erect walls and an efficient catapult to defend them could be crucial to your survival.

Pictured above: Ancient Romans preparing to decimate the zombie hordes.

Practical applications aside, it fascinates.
I read this book cover-to-cover in almost a single plane trip from Houston to Pittsburgh. Perhaps you would say this book only holds appeal for a certain type of person; but a physics or classics background isn't a prerequisite. If you've ever wondered at the Acropolis in Athens or Roman aqueducts, taken aback both by the beauty of design and the impressive scale, your interest was likely piqued by the sheer magnitude of what was accomplished without the aid of modern technology. Or maybe you played Rome Total War and want to know just how capable the Greeks and Romans truly were at building catapults; or, in a similar vein, have heard tales of Archimedes building ship-toppling cranes which he deployed to defend the walls of Syracuse.

The Romans built aqueducts like this one at Pont du Gard in France to provide a course for water running to their cities miles away from their source. This bridge is part of a system 31 miles long built in the 1st century AD and stands over 160 feet high. Another Roman aqueduct at Segovia built around the same time is still used today.

Any of these things could lead you to read this short account of ancient engineering, and for me it was a combination of all of them. The technical accomplishments of the Greeks and Romans are often side-lined to discuss art, politics, and literature, but their engineering also gives us something to marvel at. This is a society that can do much more than tell a good yarn; they solve real-world problems through the application of science and the scientific method.

Landels gives an easy-to-follow account of ancient engineering that neither indulges in technobabble nor talks down the subject matter. He maintains balance between strict report on ancient engineering matters and the occasional glance into how all of this mattered in the lives of the Greeks and Romans. Even the already stimulating topic of water supply and engineering is enhanced with an account of water administration in ancient Rome. There are no shiny pictures, but the pages feature clearly drawn illustrations that provide reconstructions of the various mechanical devices described. All that the book requires that you bring to the table is a somewhat mechanical mind with an understanding of basic principles of physics such as friction and action/reaction.

In short, I highly recommend this book for the inquisitive mind that wants to know "how does it work?", with a bent for the ancient. I picked up my copy at Half-Price Books for a pittance, but if you are lazy or haven't the luck to find it there it is also available free online at Google Books or for purchase from an bookseller near you.

1 comment:

  1. The engineering feats of ancient Greece and Rome are so insanely awesome. They MUST be, because I've ZERO interest in engineering but, despite this, I still get giddy at the thought of reading about Alexander the Great's engineering genius and Julius Caesar siegework shenanigans during the wars throughout Gaul.

    I will definitely be checking this book out when I get the chance. Gah! I wish humans didn't have to sleep. Then we could read instead. Which would be very helpful given my gargantuan list of books to read!