But history is full of examples of people who had all the necessary knowledge and yet didn't execute. The ancient Greeks actually built toy steam engines. So why didn't they launch an industrial revolution?
The limiting factors have much more to do with availability of capital than raw scientific and engineering knowledge. You need the vast web of people with specialized knowledge and tools that keep any technology running. Technology as simple as a pencil has a mind-boggling array of underlying capital requirements (see Leonard Read's classic essay "I, Pencil": http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/rdPncl1.html)
Remember that even a skill like "reading & writing" made you an unusually valuable specialist in a pre-Gutenberg world.
The true capital costs of a Roman semaphore internet are almost impossible to guess. Given the myriad other demands on their capital, it's not at all surprising they didn't try it.
Great point. Future observers might ask why our society doesn't exclusively use self-driving cars, renewable energy, all-electric vehicles, etc.
Even at the height of the Roman Empire, or later Italian Renaissance, the accumulations of capital that existed were somewhat hamstrung by the fact that they were concentrated in the hands of individuals and families. So personal aggrandizement was a huge motivating factor in deciding how the money would get spent, hence the large mount of art and monumental construction projects we see at those times.
I'd suggest that corporations are much better for producing technological innovation. As compared to what things were like in Rome, their key characteristic was that decisions about how money would get spent are generally made by groups of people who don't actually own the money themselves. That cuts way back on the motivation to just blow it all on yet another temple in one's own name.
If you think about the great infrastructure accomplishments of Rome: roads, aqueducts and sewer systems, rapid large-scale concrete construction, hypocausts, etc., then it seems to me that almost all of them were essentially scaled-up versions of domicile-level or urban-level technologies. These technologies could be piloted at a small scale and then scaled up if they proved to be worthwhile. The institutional mindset was almost totally civic rather than imperial. The military was something of an exception to this, and of course individual merchants and merchant companies would have been very much focused on keeping the gears of the empire turning. The roads and the granary systems were scaled-up urban technologies that helped the empire to function, but I'm not aware of any innovations at the empire level which didn't have some kind of urban precedent. Presumably there were no political or commercial institutions which were structured to support that kind of investment -- or even to ask those kind of questions.
The British thinking around empires was fundamentally very different. They genuinely thought AS an empire -- a highly distributed network rather than an overgrown city-state. This gave them the insight to support the creation of the semaphore system.
Perhaps a more interesting question, in my opinion, is why didn't the Chinese didn't invent the Internet? I'm not as knowledgeable about Chinese history, but my impression is that they were vastly better at thinking and acting like an empire -- not in the expansionist sense, but in the administrative sense. Presumably they would have had the kind of institutional basis to develop a network of semaphore towers. So what was the obstacle for them?
"The uselessness of the aeolipile is an excellent example of the vastly under-appreciated role of materials in technological development."
The British had centralized government planning of materials science research for use in cannons and other armaments. That paved the way too, not just a pure invisible hand of the market.
Near the end of the Roman Empire, the Romans faced a labor shortage and an important economic system was implemented by Constantine, which would later be copied by everyone else and dominate Western Europe until the Renaissance (It began to decline after the Bubonic plague improved the labor bargaining power of the less well off) . The system was called later called Feudalism, and abolished private ownership of land.
I'd add another point, the Romans are a better comparison to the Greeks, as they were closer in time. the Romans were far more centralized than the Greeks - The Athenians were directly democratic - That it was hard to scale so the Romans had an extensive system of laws.
In terms of overall scientific output there is no comparison, the Greeks were greater by a massive margin.
sidenote: pg wrote an essay (i forget which one) where he points out that blogs could have been around years earlier than they were. anyone remember which essay it was?
If you travel around Europe you will see all the towers that Romans used to carry messages. Lots of them, specially in places like Spain or Greece with lots of mountains. In other places like most of France such a tower is far less useful as there are less differences in height.
Those towers were already being used before Romans took them, for example in the North of Spain they would be used to alert from Viking Invasions from sea, it will alert the "Castros". We are talking centuries before the Romans.
About complex messages being transmitted far away, look at the Silbo Gomero at the Canary Islands, it was used before the Spanish conquered the Islands in XVI century(we don't really now how much older than that was, but probably centuries):
... except the Vikings were well after the end of the Roman empire.
That said - the geography aspect is not to be overlooked.
Maybe Rome was the first Amazon.com ;)
There is a reasonable argument that Spanish, French, Italian, et cetera are but dialects of Latin. It is only Euro-centrism which treats them as separate languages while dumping diverse tongues into Chinese.
This couldn't be further from the truth; it is the Chinese government that insists that all different Chinese languages are merely `dialects' of a common Chinese tongue, based on a Soviet-era ideology of national unity.
China does recognize distinct languages like French, Italian and Spanish, because it recognizes France, Italy and Spain as independent nations. This view isn't inspired by Euro-centrism, but by the idea that China is an indivisible nation while Europe clearly is not.
Euro-centrism isn't the culprit here; it's the fixation on the arbitrary concept of the nation-state that's responsible.
It's easy to knock things if you ignore why they were created or what existed before them. Also, you can't abolish something if you don't have anything to replace it with.
Being aware of the limitations and biases of one's own paradigm and cognizant of the fact that it's an artificial construction is different from declaring that it has no value.
Consider these stereotypes - an urban youth from inner city America and a gruff old Yorkshireman. Both speak English and use the same alphabet and mostly the same words. Yet the syntax and slang differences each have could render the dialects meaningless to each other.
But, write down what they are saying and suddenly the meaning becomes a lot clearer. Yes, there are differences, but you can probably work your way around them.
Simply put you could't beat the bandwidth a messenger, traveling on a transcontinental network of roads (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tabula_Peutingeriana), changing horses every few hours. Semaphore communication would've been a lot slower. Oh, and it wasn't any good for bringing things.
"Imagine what the world would be like if we'd had a 2,000 year head start on the principles of the Internet?"
Most likely the same it is today. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Ages for reference.
I think the article is built on the false premise that the existence of knowledge per se, guarantees it is going to be used. To paraphrase Kenneth Clark (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilisation_(TV_series)) you need a flourishing civilization to utilize the knowledge you have. Western Europe effectively UNLEARNED Roman knowledge and didn't "discover" it again for a whole millenium. Although never forgotten, Eastern Europe (represented by the Byzantine Empire) didn't have the scale or resources to take advantage of this knowledge.
So there you have it, knowledge alone is not enough.
That tabula Peutingeriana looks interesting -- thanks for the link.
So like others have said, infrastructure.
These three long predate romans:
* Imhotep is the first known physician (technically a polymath, but one of his specialties was medecine) in ~2600 BCE and we have his descriptions of a number of disease diagnosis and treatments
* There are traces of formal education dating back to >1000BCE in ancient India and China, scribal education networks in ancient Egypt and middle-east.
* As for viticulture, while it spread to Europe through Rome it predates Rome by millenia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_wine http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viticulture
I really must pester her to finish editing and get it published.
Edit: she says it's being considered by a publisher at the moment, but may go under a psuedonym, so I've removed her name from this post.
Yes, you do, because I want to read it, and I know several others who would too.
Some of the first link is quite NSFW. Take that as you will.
So one might suspect that rapid messaging systems became popular when there was an economic case for them.
It can be argued that this was missing in the Roman world, while the economic case existed and even the tech was known.
Rome in the mid to late Republic and early Empire had very sophisticated and stable laws and court systems, including a body of commercial law that was not seen again until thousands of years later.
The author seems to ignore the basic requirements for the technology to exist to begin with (a mistake Orwell made in 1984 for example). It is my opinion that an unfree society would not have invented the Internet.
Which basic technology - other than the telescope - was missing from the Roman's knowledge that would have enabled a proto-Inernet?
His 1984 does have quite a lot of high technology (machine generated media content, telescreens) but nothing that I would see as being incompatible with a totalitarian state.
Data Communications - The First 2500 Years
Proc. IFIP World Computer Congress, Hamburg Germany, August 1994, (Invited paper).
The Early History of Data Networks
G.J. Holzmann and B. Pehrson
IEEE Computer Society Press, Los Alamitos CA, (John Wiley & Sons), October 1994.
The basic ideas of relaying, encoding, separation of control/data information, error control, flow and rate control go back surprisingly far.
That's probably why they sent our messengers with wax-sealed letters.
If they were to build and use such an important infrastructure, it would surely mainly be used for military/political purposes. The criticality of those messages would inherently demand that the message would be delivered in an unaltered state.
in the same way that roads were built for military purposes, and the Arpanet was built for military purposes?
Wasn't included initially because there wasn't enough expected ubiquity to be feasible. Now that everything but my toaster has wifi support, we could have something approaching a robust free universal Internet not beholden to backbones and pricy data plans.
Must have longer omnidirectional range and some degree of wall penetration. I'm not sure if that's possible within reasonable FCC limits of frequency and power.