Engineering Through the Ages

THE ANCIENT ENGINEERS by L.Sprague deCamp is a rather broad overview of technology from Mesopotamia through the medieval period, as deCamp looks at the accomplishments of various ancients in irrigation, building, siegecraft, automata, sculpture and anything else under the loose classification of “engineering.” I found most of the accounts fascinating, though some of deCamp’s sociology is off (since he admits Islam didn’t inhibit Middle Eastern engineering, it’s a strain to argue that Religion Always Destroys Science), but my focus just now is on the book’s value as a story generator.
First off, ancient technology is a lot further along than I realized. Engineers in Greece and ancient Rome created some remarkable automata, for example, way beyond anything I realized was possible at the time. That makes me wonder if nudging the tech a little, or throwing in some magic, wouldn’t give us a plausible steampunk setting back in the BC days.
Second off, deCamp discusses in several chapters that one of the differences between Then and Now is that knowledge was so easily lost. Communication and travel were a lot more limited, and the marketing options for what passed for high-tech were more limited (a lot of fancy stuff went to the aristocracy as one-shot amusing diversions). The culture and the resources didn’t lend themselves to mass production, so if one inventor kicked off, all his work might be lost. If a small, isolated city state died, all its knowledge might be lost for centuries.
I wonder if that couldn’t also be used, in a fantasy, to explain magic not transforming the world. Magic exists, but it’s difficult, rare and mages don’t get together and swap trade secrets much. One mage might be able to transform his community, but when he dies, everything reverts. Hmm, that could have even more interesting effects—how would a city that’s used to the benefits of high-powered magic do when the spigot’s turned off?
Hmm, indeed.

1 Comment

Filed under Reading, Writing

One response to “Engineering Through the Ages

  1. Pingback: Short story authors Patricia McKillip and Jesus, plus more books! | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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