Imagine a society where the ruling class are so wealthy that they gain political power and influence not by accumulating money or land, but by proving themselves in philosophical and religious debate. Sounds a bit like Voltaire’s utopian vision of El Dorado doesn’t it? Welcome to Ancient Greece.
I previously reviewed ‘Decoding the Heavens’, a book which tells the story of how the puzzle of the Antikythera Mechanism (an ancient clockwork computer discovered in a shipwreck) was solved. Without giving too much away about the mechanism itself, here’s some more details:
- Its complexity means it probably took several generations of work from master crafstmen to perfect.
- It contained state of the art astronomical data and would have therefore required input from a top astronomer.
- It was contained in an ornate box and had inscription on its inputs and outputs which were ‘idiot’s guide’ instructions on how to use it.
From the last bullet point, we can deduce that this is no astronomer’s tool; it is a luxury item. It seems inconceivable that the Ancient Greeks could make such a machine and yet it never occurred to them that the technology could be useful if applied elsewhere. Amongst the aristocrats of this society, it was more important to use technology as a religious or philosophical demonstration than to apply the technology for more practical outcomes. In Europe, it was the invention and development of clockwork that sparked the industrial revolution.
An Ancient Greek also invented the steam engine (to disprove one of Aristotle’s theories) and again they failed to apply the technology to industry. It’s difficult to get one’s head around a society with such radically different values.