Celebrations of the Athens Olympics include a statement
that computers were invented in Greece over two thousand
years ago. Of course that is more of a legend than a fact.
But there are relevant indications that elaborate computing
machines were, indeed, developed in a Greek cultural
environment in the third century BC.
Archeologists have found clockwork devices of that period not unlike those that
were designed by Pascal, Leibnitz and others a the end of the eighteenth
century AD evolved into difference
engines and other elaborate computing machines in the 1800s
and were the origin of todays computers.
Its only an assumption that Archimedes may have been
personally involved in the designing of those tools. But its
pretty clear that there was intense scientific development,
including elaborate technologies, in a Hellenistic
environment (especially in close cooperation between Sicily
and Egypt.) Computing devices, in addition to technical
applications, astronomy and other sciences, were also tools
for philosophy and the development of knowledge.
But then there was a long blackout. The process was
almost completely interrupted in the Middle Ages.
Classic thinking wasnt lost, but it was
cultivated only in restricted monastic communities or in
secret societies often labeled as heretics.
Scientific and technical experiments were seen with
suspicion, as magic, sorcery or diabolical practices while
arts and crafts kept their knowledge private and often took
the shape of secret esoteric networks.
There was a similar situation in the Byzantine Empire,
while in Eastern cultures, especially in China, important
technical discoveries were kept at the service of
pure philosophical thinking by a sophisticated
oligarchy that considered trivial any form of practical
application. (For instance the magnetic needle was discovered
in China, but the idea of using a compass as a navigation
tool was developed in Venice.)
In the Muslim world, a thousand years ago, there was a
re-discovery of the Greek heritage. But it was short lived.
And, also in that environment, it was a tool for philosophical
and religious thought rather than technical applications.
The evolution of industrial technology has this
peculiarity: ancient origin, recent development. Its
modern phase started with early Renaissance
seven hundred years ago. That is a very short period in the
history of humanity.
There never was any human culture without technology.
Prehistoric ages are defined by the more or less advanced
ways of manufacturing stone tools and later the use of
metals. Not only because the items found in digging sites
(made of stone, metal, and a variety of other materials) are
the basis of archeological research. But also because
technical developments are closely related to the evolution
of human cultures.
The cause-and-effect relationship of technology and
culture is complex. And it works both ways. Changes are not
always originated by technology. Many times, in history, it
worked the other way round: a cultural or social situation
developed a need that caused the discovery or invention of a
tool (or a different application of existing resources.)
There are countless examples of techniques that had been
developed but were forgotten, and left unused, for years,
centuries or millennia. Or they were applied for some limited
purpose, but they didnt develop their most interesting
potential, because their time hadnt come.
This isnt only a matter of history. We can learn
important lessons by understanding how culture interacts with
It was a cultural change, in the thirteenth and
fourteenth century, that caused the extraordinary evolution
of language, thinking and lifestyle called the Renaissance.
It wasnt only literature, art and philosophy. There was also
a keen interest in mathematics, physics, all forms of science
and technology. Leonardo da Vinci wasnt a
random mutant. The width and variety of his interests were
the fruit of a strongly developed culture.
If Johann Gutenberg had remained a goldsmith, in a decade
or so someone else would have invented a new printing
process. There were several teams in Germany working on the
same idea. Because the resources were there, by combining
different technologies that had been developed for other
purposes. But also because there was a need.
The growth of universities in Europe had created a demand for
the mass production of identical copies of teaching
materials. And, more broadly, there was an increasing number
of people who wanted to read books. A few years after Aldo
Manuzio in Venice invented publishing, by the turn of the
century there were more books printed than had been
hand-copied in all previous history.
More recently... its hard to understand why punchcard
technology, that was used in looms since 1803, wasnt applied
to data management until 1890. There are countless examples
of complexity in the development of technologies and their
The industrial era started in the fourteenth century. The
use of heat energy for manufacturing hadnt yet been found,
but water and wind mills didnt just grind wheat. They
powered an increasing variety of machinery.
Of course a big change came with the steam engine in the
late 1700s and with electric power in the mid 1800s. The
industrial world was dominated by mass
manufacturing. Only recently we entered into a new phase and
its still difficult to understand where we are going.
There is a little game that has been played many times.
It may seem silly, but it can help to put things in perspective.
Take an extended period of time and pretend its
a day. We could date the origins of mankind to about a
million years ago. But for the purpose of this exercise we
can choose a much shorter period.
If we set the beginning of the Paleolithic era at
approximately 40 thousand years ago, and start the day at
that time, we find the use of metals at 9 PM.
Archimedes is born at 10.40 PM
Leonardo da Vinci an hour later, twenty minutes before midnight.
The entire industrial evolution, even if we date it from the 1300s,
is in the last half hour.
Steam engines appear at 11.51 PM.
The experimental use of electricity starts at 11.53 PM
electric light and power two or three minutes later. Telegraph
begins six minutes before midnight. Telephone, movies, the motorcar and
the airplane around four minutes ago, radio three, atomic
energy and television two. The prototype of electronic
computers came two minutes before our time, the internet one
(but it has been widely available only in the last twenty
seconds.) Mobile phones have existed for two minutes, but
their obsessive spreading is in the last ten seconds.
The important problem isnt the speed of change that
has no constant or predictable pattern. Its the fact that
many things have been around for a very short time (including
some that may seem old, but arent, compared to
the evolution of human culture.) The biological roots, and
largely also the cultural attitudes, of our species, havent
changed much since the age of cave dwellers.
Its no surprise to find that we havent had the time to
learn how to use the resources that we have or the variety
and speed of communication that were unknown for 99 percent
of our history even if we date it only from the beginning of writing.
Now we have understood that the enthusiasm for the
marvels of progress, back in the 1800s, was naïve. We
know that technical development cant solve all problems
and it can cause new, sometimes dramatic, difficulties and
damages. But we still have a lot to learn.
We neednt be scared of Pandoras box or limit the
scope of scientific research and experiment. But we must
learn how to put its practical consequences at the service of
human needs (and the environment) instead of doing the opposite.
A lot of what we are used to is still very new. We
havent had the time to understand the potential and the
consequences of the tools that we have, as well as those that
we are discovering. We are running the risk of being driven
by innovation instead of driving it. The heart of progress is
the evolution of human culture. We need to understand how to
nourish our scientific and technical resources with
continuing growth of knowledge and awareness.