Technology and Autonomous Mechanisms in the Mediterranean: From Ancient Greece to Byzantium (Part 3)

Here we present selected parts from the very interesting corresponding paper by K. P. Valavanis, G. J. Vachtsevanos, P. J. Antsaklis.


Greco-Roman period & transition to Byzantium 

The Roman Empire became the dominant force in the greater Mediterranean region starting at 100 B.C. The Romans were responsible, through the application and development of available machines, for an important technological transformation: the widespread introduction of rotary motion. This was exemplified in the use of the treadmill for powering cranes and other heavy lifting operations, the introduction of rotary water raising devices for irrigation works (a scoop wheel powered by a treadmill), and the development of the waterwheel as a prime mover. Vitruvius, a Roman engineer gave an account of watermills, and by the end of the Roman era many were in operation.

The Roman Empire was split in two parts around 350 A.D. with Rome being the capital of the Western part and Byzantium, later called Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The eastern Roman Empire also called Byzantine Empire became distinctly Greek as opposed to its western Roman counterpart. The level of knowledge declined much more rapidly in the Roman west than in the Greek east. Inventions in Byzantium derive from Heron’s era as shown in Figure 19 that depicts mechanical animals and birds of the Byzantine throne.

In the West, what survived was mostly contained in handbooks as collections of known facts. Notable examples are Pliny’s Natural History (75 A.D.), Aulus Gellius Attic Nights (2nd century A.D.), Slinus’ Collection of Remarkable Facts (3rd or 4th century A.D.). In the East, by contrast, much more of the Greek science was preserved. The tradition of scholarship kept knowledge alive from the ancient scientific texts (through scholarly discussions and the publication of commentaries in addition to original texts) even when the scholarly commentators themselves did not attempt to engage in original scientific research on their own account. Much of what is known today about Greek science is due to this tradition.

By the year 600 A.D. preliminary efforts had already been made to turn part of the Greek corpus of scientific learning into Latin in the West and into Syrian in the East. Greek science was converted first into the Arabic tongue in the 9th and 10th centuries and then
once again from Arabic and Greek into Latin in the 12th and 13th centuries. Although the Greek corpus received major additions and modifications at the hands of Arab and Latin authors, it was still essentially the Greek learning that made its way to the Latin west.

After the fall of Alexandria to the Arabs (642 A.D.), knowledge of medicine, biology, astronomy and mathematics spread through the Arab world and from about the middle of the 9th century, the Arabs produced scholars like the astronomer and geometer Thabit ben Qurra and the polymath Al Kindi.

Discussion and concluding remarks

(…) It should not be overlooked that this paper touched only upon mechanisms as mostly related to the discipline of (feedback) control, without even making an attempt to state accomplishments is other areas. However, there is documented evidence and proof of
major inventions in areas like Architecture, Metallurgy, Marine Engineering and ship building, Hydraulics and hydraulic projects, construction engineering, music instruments, everyday life, mechanisms using series of bolts and spur gears, to name a few.

Therefore, as it has been demonstrated, ancient Greek technology was rather complex but also very dominant and did not lack contributions to society. It is very misleading to claim that Greeks contributed only to philosophy, arts and sciences excluding technology.
Perhaps this erroneous statement was partially because of Plato, his fight against Archytas the Tarantine as well as his passion for science and not technology with the meaning of learning how to do or fix something.


Research: Anastasius Philoponus



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