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The Archimedes computer

August 2004

disponibile anche in italiano

  Giancarlo Livraghi
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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 today’s computers.

It’s only an assumption that Archimedes may have been personally involved in the designing of those tools. But it’s 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t develop their most interesting potential, because “their time hadn’t come.”

This isn’t only a matter of history. We can learn important lessons by understanding how culture interacts with technical solutions.

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 wasn’t only literature, art and philosophy. There was also a keen interest in mathematics, physics, all forms of science – and technology. Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t 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... it’s hard to understand why punchcard technology, that was used in looms since 1803, wasn’t applied to data management until 1890. There are countless examples of complexity in the development of technologies and their practical applications.

The industrial era started in the fourteenth century. The use of heat energy for manufacturing hadn’t yet been found, but water and wind mills didn’t 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 it’s 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 it’s 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 isn’t the speed of change – that has no constant or predictable pattern. It’s the fact that many things have been around for a very short time (including some that may seem “old”, but aren’t, compared to the evolution of human culture.)  The biological roots, and largely also the cultural attitudes, of our species, haven’t changed much since the age of cave dwellers.

It’s no surprise to find that we haven’t 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 can’t solve all problems – and it can cause new, sometimes dramatic, difficulties and damages. But we still have a lot to learn.

We needn’t be scared of Pandora’s 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 haven’t 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.

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