The Ancient World essay

The opening chapter of John Rae, and Rudi Volti’s, The Engineer in History (New York: Peter Lang, 2001), entitled, “The Ancient World,” offers an historical extension of the authors’ overall thesis, which is stated quite clearly in the book’s introduction. The basic aim of the authors’ study is to establish engineering and its associated arts and trades as fundamental fields of human capacity which have not only helped to define and shape history, but continue to define and shape the future.

While it is obvious that technology plays a profound and determinate role in the modern world, the role of technology also operated at a profound and meaningful level in the ancient world, and technology and engineering maintained critical roles in social evolution throughout human history.

As the authors point out, technology and engineering allow humanity to “to transcend mere existence by directly and indirectly promoting the advance of science, the arts, and all the other elements of civilized life” 1 and in this regard, the authors insist, technology and engineering, no less than pure science, the arts, or philosophy, can achieve “an aesthetic value of their own; a well-designed bridge can appeal to the artistic spirit as much as a literary or musical masterpiece. ” 2

Such an assertion may seem, at first glance, a simple matter of common sense; however, the relative ease with which the authors build their case throughout the book as a whole (beginning with “The Ancient World”) somewhat contradicts the “prejudice” with which engineering has been regarded by historians, and particularly historians who specialize in the ancient world. As a matter if fact, most studies of ancient history have focused on “the literary, artistic, and philosophical accomplishments of the ancient world” 3 with far less interest revealed in matters of technological development and engineering.

Despite this fact, “the systematic application of existing ones, were essential to the civilizations of antiquity. ” 4 This latter observation can be considered a key component of the authors’ overall thesis, which is to establish the fields of technology and engineering as a primary factor of human history. Because the authors of the book are eminent scholars in their fields, and have established reputations for expertise and wide-ranging knowledge in their specific areas of study, the book is — necessarily — theoretically complex and intellectually engaging.

There is a large amount of theoretical material coupled with copious (but not exhaustive) supporting evidences. The fundamental focus on the study, as mentioned, is to “add to our understanding of these people who have done so much while working in relative anonymity” 5 and it is by this quite clever marrying of the purely theoretical with the historically human which helps th authors’ study to leap to life off the page.

For example, in another study in the field of technology in the ancient world, “Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries: The Ancient World” (2003) Robert and Carolyn Krebs take a distinctly “dry” approach to historical anecdote and historical evidence to sketch an idea of the evolution of engineering as a human science and technology: “Also involved was the development of a larger brain, an advanced level of intelligence, and consciousness beyond their primate ancestors, which most likely developed in conjunction with the improved flexible fore- arm and hand with opposable thumb ” 6 By contrast, “The Ancient World” chapter reveals a more intimate and personal attempt to understand the humanity behind the technology of the ancient world, and in so doing “humanize” what might otherwise be viewed as merely a dry and technical survey of the evolution of technology. As mentioned, the clearly stated purpose of the book is to reinvigorate historical assumptions about the role of engineering and technology, but equally importantly, to sing the praises of the “unsung heros” of engineering and technological advancement who have played such a pivotal, but largely unheralded, role in the advancement of humanity.

While Krebs and Krebs play down the role of the engineer as a specific and acknowledged profession of antiquity “The ancient builders and craftsmen did not perceive themselves, nor did others, as engineers. They were simply men of intellect, curiosity, and persistence who, most often unknowingly, utilized a combination of mathematics, mechanics, and physical principles to create something of use and benefit ,” 7 the authors of The Engineer in History take a wildly different course of action and celebrate the individuals as well as their technological innovations. Other studies, such as “Ancient Mathematics” by Cuomo (2001) tend to view engineering ain the ancient world as a “sub-category” of mathematics.

In fact, studies of this nature often cite engineering and technological innovations as “side-effects” of the more central and more crucial mathematical paradigms and theorems which were pursued by ancient scholars, not for their potential pragmatic applications through engineering and technology, but for their abstract and theoretical capacities alone. In some cases, the outgrowth of applicable engineering or technology was heralded as a pleasant “after-effect” of the mathematical advances which facilitated it, as in the case with Hero’s “Dioptra” which is describes as “the most mathematical of Hero’s works. The dioptra is of course another machine[…

] it can be used to measure the width of a river or the depth of a ditch, to help dig underground water conduits or build a well. ” 8 By reading such studies it is easy to understand why the authors of the chapter “The Ancient World” took great care to establish the obscurity in which ancient engineering and technology have been held. The authors of “The Engineer in History” provide an energetic and very capable argument on behalf of their central thesis and the overall impact of even a single chapter like “The Ancient World” is not only to recast the light in which the evolution of technology has usually been viewed, but to reconfigure the attitude which may may hold regarding technological and engineering sciences in the present day.

In other words, merely reading the chapter “The Ancient World” not only improved my personal understanding of technology adn engineering the ancient world, but changed, if slightly, the way I view the existence of technology in the modern world. This change is predicated upon the understanding the technology and engineering are not “new” accomplishments which help to set the modern world apart from the ancient, but rather, technology adn engineering are links to humanity deep, historical past and the present-day accomplishments of technology and engineering which are seemingly held in universal high-esteem, are not the “magical” advent of an intellectually “superior” era. but the natural evolutionary outgrowth of a tradition of technology and engineering which has been always part of human history.

I think the chapter one “The Ancient World” is not only the most “logical” place for the authors to begin their study, but it is also the most dramatic because it places in the mind of the alert reader that, despite millions of years of time, and perhaps many thousands of miles of geographical distance, technology and engineering as cultural, no less than pragmatic, applications have provided both a tangible and a theoretical link between human cultures of all kinds and throughout all stages of history. Such a vision seems both fresh adn informative as well as crucially important in helping to develop a efficacious model of history by which contemporary minds may take “bearings: for the present and the future. Notes 1. John Rae, and Rudi Volti, The Engineer in History (New York: Peter Lang, 2001), null6. 2. Ibid. 3. John Rae, and Rudi Volti, The Engineer in History (New York: Peter Lang, 2001), null8. 4. Ibid. 5. John Rae, and Rudi Volti, The Engineer in History (New York: Peter Lang, 2001), 3. 6. Robert E. Krebs, and Carolyn A.

Krebs, Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries: The Ancient World (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003), xviii. 7. Robert E. Krebs, and Carolyn A. Krebs, Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries: The Ancient World (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003), 106. 1. S. Cuomo, Ancient Mathematics (London: Routledge, 2001), 164.


Cuomo, S. Ancient Mathematics. London: Routledge, 2001. Krebs, Robert E. , and Carolyn A. Krebs. Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries: The Ancient World. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003. Rae, John, and Rudi Volti. The Engineer in History. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.