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March 1, 2013 6:09 AM   Subscribe

"That got me thinking: Could the Romans have built a digital computer using only the technology and manufacturing processes available to them?"
posted by Chrysostom (79 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fortunately, Perl is past-proofed against this possibility.
posted by frimble at 6:20 AM on March 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


"All right... all right... but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order... what have the Romans done for us? "

They invented the Internet...

Internet, yes... shut up!
posted by Naberius at 6:20 AM on March 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


One of the first computers was built entirely using relays.
posted by BungaDunga at 6:23 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


It uses hand cut gears that are surprisingly precise, but still probably not good enough for a mechanical computer. Small inaccuracies in the gear trains would add up, and this is evident in the Antikythera mechanism. It would be even more pronounced in a room sized contraption and would almost certainly prevent any useful calculations from being performed.

That's not a digital computer anyway. It's analog. A digital computer would threshold those small inaccuracies (just like Babbage did and like electronic digital computers do) and fix the problem.

There are multiple examples of medieval mechanical computation devices, if not actually programmable computers, being built and none of that era was really beyond the Romans in a materials or manufacturing way. They might not have had all the mathematical concepts, though.
posted by DU at 6:23 AM on March 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


(The constant confusion of the completely orthogonal concepts of analog/digital vs mechanical/electronic is one of my pet peeves.)
posted by DU at 6:24 AM on March 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm'a gonna go ahead and call it. The new school of cool is now "sandalpunk."

Mollius the gladiatrix bodyguard, with her polished emerald eyes, and Cassius, the criminal philosopher-for-hire, brought in by Cicero on behalf of a mysterious benefactor to bankrupt Afrania via computator... will they be betrayed by their bloodthirsty Acetabularii companion?
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:26 AM on March 1, 2013 [31 favorites]


Not discussed: software. More specifically, math.

They didn't have zero. They had horrible awkward notation in which you cannot even do algebra. They had no interest in pure mathematics, and failed to advance mathematics in the slightest.

The best they could have done is maybe an electric abacus, and I have my doubts there.
posted by Foosnark at 6:29 AM on March 1, 2013 [12 favorites]


Just gluegun some doric columns to it.
posted by Artw at 6:30 AM on March 1, 2013 [27 favorites]


Not to be picky, but one part that is missing from this scenario are the information and associated information technologies, generated by communities of scientists and inventors over time, that now allow us to draw on stores of human knowledge when we build things today. I don't think this sort of technology really existed before movable type.

So for me it's really a case of: Could the Romans have built a computer? - Possibly - Would they have known how to? - Probably not.

The question posed in the original article should really be "Can we build a computer knowing what we know today, using technologies available to the Romans?"

Someone write a script quickly and send it to Hollywood!
posted by carter at 6:33 AM on March 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, the Romans were actually pretty terrible at math. You know their famous water system? You could get nozzles installed in your house for that. Guess how they charged you for water usage? Cross-sectional area of the nozzle, not flow-rate. (Of course, they didn't have clocks either, but you can still time it against a calibrated-drip bucket or something.) So you buy a nozzle, put it in there at an angle to maximize flow-rate and other tweaks and get like twice the water for the money.

Furthermore, Frontinus does some sample calculations of these areas and actually gets some wrong. Possibly because his notation is so awful, possibly because bosses never know the technical details. But the point is: this is not a civilization ready to build computing machines.
posted by DU at 6:37 AM on March 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's kind of silly to speculate about semiconductors and magnetic generators when they didn't even have wire drawing machines.
posted by localroger at 6:40 AM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


I found this tangent the most interesting part: POWs in World War II used the oxidation on razer blades as a semiconductor and a safety pin to create a diode so they could build receivers to keep up to date with news on the war.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:41 AM on March 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


X SCRIBERET "NATIS"
XX DISCEDERE AD X
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:41 AM on March 1, 2013 [19 favorites]


Anyway, we had rocks.
posted by Artw at 6:43 AM on March 1, 2013


This article is a bit confusing. First it talks about how advanced the Romans were, but then starts talking about creating diodes, and trying to build a computer out of diode logic.

I can certainly see if a modern engineer fell back in time and wanted to build a computer using available Roman technology, sure, that might work.

But for the Romans to have done this on their own...there are huge fields that they would have needed to explore in more depth just to get started. Like they would have had to have had enough electricity available to consider playing around with it and discovering the diode in the first place. They would also need to discover the link between electricity and magnetism. Then somebody would need to understand logic and mathematics in a more abstract way, adopt the zero, adopt some uniform number-base system besides wacky roman numerals, then understand the equivalence to binary, etc. Then somebody has to take that and map that all onto the discovery that there is such a thing as diode logic... Etc. That's a pretty tall order.

Even if the Romans were somehow suddenly motivated down this path, it might have taken them a few hundred years to get to the point of a simple computer on their own.
posted by delicious-luncheon at 6:43 AM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Anyway, we had rocks.

Good point, and it's still around, and still works. A stable platform. No problems with updating/migrating hardware there!
posted by carter at 6:46 AM on March 1, 2013


I can certainly see if a modern engineer fell back in time and wanted to build a computer using available Roman technology, sure, that might work.

That's sort of the premise.

Granted, it's a bit of a dumb premise that ignores a lot, but hey, if that stupid Reddit thread can get optioned...
posted by Artw at 6:46 AM on March 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


the Romans were actually pretty terrible at math

They would have had to use Greeks. In fact the most plausible scenario I can think of is that instead of accidentally killing Archimedes they kidnap him and make him work on ciphers and codes for them. Then they ask him how they can get code books written out without errors.

Then one day he thinks "Why not get a machine to do it? In fact, why not generalise the machine so it could execute any process..."

I think he is the only person in the ancient world who might plausibly have done it, though.
posted by Segundus at 6:48 AM on March 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


Anyway, we had rocks.

Have you tried banging them together, Artw? wink, wink, nudge, nudge
posted by Naberius at 6:49 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I am endeavouring, madam, to construct a mnemonic circuit with stone knives and bearskins."

Maybe Spock, Sir Boss, or Professor Roy Hinckley could do it, if thrust into that technological millieu, by applying modern concepts to ancient physical culture but the Romans themselves, no.

The Romans may have had the engineering know-how to construct the physical parts, but crucially the Romans lacked some logically prior concepts of abstraction:

Zero and infinity
Boolean algebra (in fact, any algebra at all)
Vacuum (did someone say tubes (valves)?)
E-M theory
Chemistry
et bloody cetera.
 
posted by Herodios at 6:53 AM on March 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'd be really interested to know whether the Roman understanding of numbers would have been an impediment to using computers -- as we understand them -- in any sort of a useful way. From the tiny amount of programming and computer science I've picked up, zero / null seems like a pretty fundamental concept that the Romans were already contorting themselves around.
posted by gauche at 6:54 AM on March 1, 2013


Dammit, I was totally going to coin the term "Sandalpunk" until Slap*Happy beat me to it. I'll have to develop my own subgenre called "Togapunk".
posted by usonian at 7:03 AM on March 1, 2013


usonian, let's start a band using only ancient instruments to create buzzy, droning waves of semi-melodic noise that wash over the musicians and audience alike, lyrics murmured indistinctly in Latin and Ancient Greek, and call our sound sandalgazer.
posted by gauche at 7:09 AM on March 1, 2013 [10 favorites]


Yeah, Archimedes could probably come up with something like that. But I doubt he or any other Greco-Roman would EVER think "Why not get a machine to do it?" Because slaves.
posted by DU at 7:13 AM on March 1, 2013 [7 favorites]


They actually did invent a digital watch powered by the Spiritalia seu Pneumatica steam engine that was only worn strapped to the shoulder harness of hypermuscularized hunchback centurions.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:17 AM on March 1, 2013


DU: There are multiple examples of medieval mechanical computation devices, if not actually programmable computers, being built and none of that era was really beyond the Romans in a materials or manufacturing way. They might not have had all the mathematical concepts, though.
Not quite medieval, but the Jacquard loom is earliest general-purpose programmable computer (1801) I'm aware of, after the Antikythera mechanism.

Bonus (or not): it was programmed with punch-cards.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:30 AM on March 1, 2013


The antikythera mechanism was not a general-purpose programmable computer.

When I mentioned mechanical computation devices, I was thinking of things similar to Pascal's calculator. Unfortunately I can't think of the guy's name I was thinking of in particular. He wasn't a fancy-pants mathematician, just some more-or-less working class joe who made one in, I want to say, the 15th or 16th century.
posted by DU at 7:38 AM on March 1, 2013


Foosnark: Not discussed: software. More specifically, math.

They didn't have zero. They had horrible awkward notation in which you cannot even do algebra. They had no interest in pure mathematics, and failed to advance mathematics in the slightest.

The best they could have done is maybe an electric abacus, and I have my doubts there.
None of which is needful for creating a computer. It may be a common usage for computers, but hardly necessary.
DU: Yeah, the Romans were actually pretty terrible at math. You know their famous water system? You could get nozzles installed in your house for that. Guess how they charged you for water usage? Cross-sectional area of the nozzle, not flow-rate. (Of course, they didn't have clocks either, but you can still time it against a calibrated-drip bucket or something.) So you buy a nozzle, put it in there at an angle to maximize flow-rate and other tweaks and get like twice the water for the money.
The Romans knew this, and therefore passed laws forbidding the nozzle from entering the aqueduct at any angle off the perpendicular.

Now, since you have the advantage of fancy modern school-learnin' with zeroes and maths and stuffs... please tell us how *you* would have measured flow rate with Roman technologies, with cost-effective means? Obviously, things with moving parts aren't going to be practical for monitoring all the aqueduct's users.

Before you mock an ancient solution to a problem, you must first prove it is actually not a good solution (it is; round pipe diameter at a perpendicular = flow rate), and that they overlooked an obviously better solution (I'll be waiting).
posted by IAmBroom at 7:39 AM on March 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


DU: The antikythera mechanism was not a general-purpose programmable computer.
You're right; my mistake. Programmable, but not general-purpose.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:40 AM on March 1, 2013


The funny thing is, we have some systems at work that appear to date back to the Second Triumvirate. They also make poor use of the concept of zero. So...totally possible.
posted by mosk at 7:43 AM on March 1, 2013


...please tell us how *you* would have measured flow rate with Roman technologies, with cost-effective means? Obviously, things with moving parts aren't going to be practical for monitoring all the aqueduct's users.

Why not? That's how we do it today. The Romans had the odometer (cf Vitruvius), which is all you need. Flowing water turns a paddlewheel, which runs the counter.

If they are too bulky or expensive to install everywhere, make a portable one and have timed inspections. (Timer is a calibrated drip bucket, candle or some other fairly standard device.)
posted by DU at 7:43 AM on March 1, 2013


round pipe diameter at a perpendicular = flow rate

You seem to have forgotten about pressure. In a city with multiple-story houses, this is an issue.
posted by DU at 7:44 AM on March 1, 2013


I don’t think the Romans could have built the analytical engine or other purely mechanical computer because of the tolerances required.

They might not have been able to build an analytical engine that fit in a single room, but there's no reason they couldn't have built a mechanical computer.

Making mechanical logic gates doesn't seem to be difficult; youtube has lots of videos of digital logic implemented in legos. And you could implement an early microprocessor with at most a couple of thousand gates, correctly arranged. Likewise, there are implementations of mechanical memory out there, and mechanical storage is as simple as old Hollerith cards.

It would be enormous; for a sense of the scale look at redstone processors in Minecraft. It would probably require the Romans to do something absurd like divert the entire flow of the Tiber to generate enough mechanical power to run it. And running at, say, 0.01 Hz instead of 750-1000KHz it would be of debatable utility.

But the Romans, or the Greeks, or the Egyptians could have built a mechanical processor if they'd had the theoretical knowledge about how to do so and why it might be useful.

For a similar idea, see Mullen's _Souls in the Great Machine_, which features a sort of digital computer that uses people for its adders, multipliers, etc instead of devices.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:50 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Because slaves.

It's worth remembering that slaves and freed men did the bulk of the administrative work in the Roman empire too.
posted by Artw at 7:55 AM on March 1, 2013


The Digi-Comp II is a binary digital mechanical computer, capable of conducting basic operations like adding, multiplying, subtracting, dividing, counting, and so forth. These operations are all conducted by the action of balls rolling down a slope, directed by mechanical switches and flip flops, and all powered by gravity.

It is not a stored-program computer or a general-purpose computer, though.
posted by jepler at 7:57 AM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Did they have redstone, though? I'm pretty sure you need redstone to build a computer.
posted by oulipian at 8:00 AM on March 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


I don’t think the Romans could have built the analytical engine or other purely mechanical computer because of the tolerances required.

To reiterate: One of the things that makes digital computation so much better than analog is that you don't need the close tolerances. In an analog computer (using gears, say) you have to make EXACTLY one rotation on the output for every EXACT one rotation on the input. For a digital computer, you just have to make something more than .5 rotations and something less than 1.5 rotations on the output for the same input. Round to the nearest discrete value and done.

(Reasonably, you wouldn't allow such a wide range, but even 10% on either side, killer in an analog system, would be just fine in a digital one.)
posted by DU at 8:07 AM on March 1, 2013


Programmable, but not general-purpose.

Same applied to Jacquard. It was a programmable loom, but neither a general purpose, nor a calculating machine.

They didn't have zero. They had horrible awkward notation in which you cannot even do algebra.
None of which is needful for creating a computer

Only if you're redefining 'computer'.

The article in question quite specifically (though bone-headedly) discusses constructing a digital computer. The author claims to be a computer engineer, yet leaps conceptually from the manufacture of computer components and power supplies to switching it on and calculating monthy water bills for ever Ptah, Dick and Hathor in Alexandria.

What he's lept over is everthing that makes a box of parts an actual working digital computer, and the Romans did not have these concepts (at the level of maturity needed to do the job).
 
posted by Herodios at 8:09 AM on March 1, 2013


This is generally quite interesting. It reminds me of an essay by the early film critic Andre Bazin in which he pointed out that we technically had the capability to create films at least five hundred years before we actually did. Toys that were basically fancified flip-books with light boxes attached, and which thereby created moving pictures people could watch, were enjoyed as a novelty in the Renaissance. His question was: so why did we only see them as novelties? Why did it take five hundred years for us to take this medium seriously? Why was the twentieth century specifically the era of film?

I'm still not sure of the answer, but it seems like an interesting rumination.
posted by koeselitz at 8:09 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


(Of course, maybe that's more realistic; film projection machines are a hell of a lot simpler than computers.)
posted by koeselitz at 8:10 AM on March 1, 2013


delicious-luncheon: "
I can certainly see if a modern engineer fell back in time and wanted to build a computer using available Roman technology, sure, that might work.
"

See this. OK, it's Poland in the 13th century, but still...
posted by notsnot at 8:11 AM on March 1, 2013


TBH I'd expect the problems with tolerances to result in the gears seizing up or failing to mesh more than the whole thing working and a dial being out by a bit.
posted by Artw at 8:16 AM on March 1, 2013


I thought Frankowski would come up. Also, see the tags for a higher quality version.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:17 AM on March 1, 2013


because slaves

Yes, true; but slaves make mistakes. Not very Greek to go for a machine as the solution, granted - but Archimedes wasn't averse to a bit of engineering. It has been suggested that the Antikythera thing is attributable to him, with what plausibility I cannot say.

They might not have been able to build an analytical engine that fit in a single room

Oh, but those boys had some fucking big rooms.
posted by Segundus at 8:18 AM on March 1, 2013


Furthermore, Frontinus does some sample calculations of these areas and actually gets some wrong. Possibly because his notation is so awful, possibly because bosses never know the technical details.

It's probably worth pointing out that Frontinus is a relatively early source from the Roman Empire and that there's a great deal about Roman water engineering that isn't covered at all in his writings (like taps.) The manuscripts with the figures are themselves problematic and it's difficult to measure accurately the flow rate contemporary to his life versus the evidence now. I mean, it's useful, but not really a comprehensive look at the actual archaeological evidence for Roman water systems. Relatively few private houses would even have had legal access to the water system, multistory or no. Anyway, this is a cool website if anyone is interested in water access and use in Rome over the last 2800 years or so.

Kind of a silly question, really, though.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:19 AM on March 1, 2013


Ok, the real question is: if you sent a Computer Science department back to the time of the Roman Empire, could they a) take over and b) defeat those Marines sent back in that earlier scenario?
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:19 AM on March 1, 2013 [10 favorites]


Caesarpunk.

The question posed in the original article should really be "Can we build a computer knowing what we know today, using technologies available to the Romans?"

Unquestionably. Send back a group with resources enough for security, wealth generation to create a base for political power, and of course the science and engineering, you'd have it up and running in very short order. Assuredly as soon as Roman business and the military saw themselves being outclassed. And given you're going to share the methods with them.

Could the Romans have done it themselves?

Yes. Electricity is no problem. The Romans had copper wire. They had watermills in the city on Janiculum hill. (Barbegal was called the greatest concentration of mechanical power in the ancient world). Power generation would have all been hydroelectric.
They had (after Augustus) and efficient method of sharing information. Given the will they could have built a computer, which would have spurred research into how to exploit it. They did this with many other technologies. They stole technology wholesale from the Egyptians, the Greeks, etc. They took methods of glazing (double glazing for insulation) to support cultural imports such as bathing, they took architectural engineering from the Etruscans and did it in Greek style.

Drawing technology from around the world and fusing it or reinventing it was their thing. If they had the idea for a computer, it would be entirely possible for them to put it all together.

Would the Romans have ever done it within a reasonable (100 year) time frame from the point at which they got the idea and had motivation to do it?

Not a chance in hell.

They had an economy based on slavery. Not just for strong backs, but for intellect (many slaves were teachers - the problems with which, e.g. the spoiled noble student putting the more intelligent/authoritative teacher but slave in their place and the problems which ensued - was the subject of a lot of plays).
Slavery, or rather, the demand for submission of another human such that they have no "self" other than serving their master, is always going to corrode advances and destroy complexity.
Not just because why should the slave work any harder to make the world a better place if they have no place in it, but because domination/submission becomes more important than any other social trait in how society functions so there is where all the resources are directed.
The slaves felt that way too. Hey, when I'm free, ahmana get me some slaves!

And you see that in the fall. In-fighting, betrayal to barbarians, military rebellion, everything based on conquest and hyperinflation in order to pretend to pay soldiers more to expand, use of mercenaries, etc. etc.
All the focus directed inward, to capture resources and use the threat of force to keep the system working the same way - albeit with more resourceful/specialized individuals rising to the top - instead of developing new and more efficient methods.

They probably could have developed computers, but even if they had the knowledge, they wouldn't want them.
They wouldn't understand, and indeed would be offended and threatened by, the potential transformation of their system.
And, demonstrably, were. Crucifixion was for treasonous acts such as rebelling as a slave. Not only painful, but socially shameful.
So not only was information, and the sharing of new ideas proprietary, but your very being - who "you" are, was a proprietary concept. Not you will do "x" but "Thou art."
Impossible to get an idea across in an environment like that.

For example the Charles R. Drew story (black doctor who invented blood transfusion died because white doctors wouldn't treat him) isn't factual, but it's an accurate representation of the mental landscape of the time. The Red Cross, for example, separated "black" and "white" blood. Which is ironic in the same way.
So given our own slavery experience and lynching (e.g. in terms the inability to understand. Or seeing an artificial incongruity. Such as how a "slave" could be a doctor)

The Romans probably had crucified any number of enlightened souls with brilliant new ideas on how to share information or alleviate human suffering. (With one particularly notable case. And look what they did to his idea of "let's be unselfishly nice to each other." "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" became In Hoc Signo Vinces)

It's not simply the divergent technologies you have to bring together, or the systems of information sharing - although those are important, far more critical is the imagination and apprehension of change. Without a system that supports that, nothing happens.
Most technological change until recently has been made in spite of social (including religious) systems.
And we still don't have jetpacks.
Even today a change that revolutionary is beyond many people. Tell someone you have a plan to open other dimensions and expand the spectrum of human thought to transcend physical embodiment and they'll ask "But what about cars?" - you won't need cars - "But how am I going to drive to work?"

If you can't imagine it, it's not going to happen no matter the potential.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:24 AM on March 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


It's kind of silly to speculate about semiconductors and magnetic generators when they didn't even have wire drawing machines.

They knew how to draw gold and silver into wire, which they used for jewelry -- indeed, strip drawing wire was known by the Ancient Egyptains during the Middle Kingdom period, some 12 centuries before Rome itself. Pure drawing wasn't documented until the 8th century, but if there was a lot of wire being used, there would have been an incentive to discover the process sooner.

They probably could have drawn copper into wire as well, the hardest part would have been finding pure copper, but Rome did have access to native copper mines.

You could have quite easily used silver wire for carrying power. Expensive, yes, but it works just fine. The magnets in the caultrons purifying uranium for the Manhattan Project famously used silver wire, because of the vast need for copper across all industry in WWII, and the large amount of silver bullion in Federal banks for coinage. There's a apocryphal conversation between the project and the Department of the Treasury where the Manhattan Project first requisitions some 350 tons of silver, and the Treasury Department officer says "Son, we do not think of silver in tons. We think of silver in troy ounces." In the end, they'd use close to 15,000 tons of silver and after the war, they returned almost all of it -- less than one part was lost for every four million borrowed.
posted by eriko at 8:47 AM on March 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


AGGREDIO CONSIDERATUR NOCIVUM
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:47 AM on March 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


I thought Frankowski would come up. Also, see the tags for a higher quality version.

Ooh, I've never heard of Lest Darkness Fall. And de Camp knew his ancient tools and mechanisms, so this should be good.
posted by DU at 9:00 AM on March 1, 2013


the Manhattan Project famously . . . requisitioned close to 15,000 tons of silver [from the Treasury Department] . . . and after the war, they returned almost all of it . . .

Resulting is a post-war epidemic of leukemia among Treasury employees?
 
posted by Herodios at 9:00 AM on March 1, 2013


With regard to wire, I think the article seemed to take for granted that wire wasn't an issue. It was more a problem of getting powerful enough permanent magnets so you could build a generator.
posted by delicious-luncheon at 9:02 AM on March 1, 2013


Also, instead of trying to go for electricity, if we somehow assume that the Romans could make a giant leap in conceptual mathematics so they got the zero and boolean logic, wouldn't something like fluidics be in their grasp? They already knew how to channel water, and could forge pipes without a problem. I would imagine creating fluidic logic components wouldn't have been too much of a problem.

This would skip all the need to bother learning about electricity and needing to invent diodes, and some kind of EM theory, etc.
posted by delicious-luncheon at 9:05 AM on March 1, 2013


Damnit. I accidentally destroyed Carthage twice and crashed the empire.
posted by w0mbat at 9:09 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


It was more a problem of getting powerful enough permanent magnets so you could build a generator.

Romans understood neither electricity nor magnetism.

You know that they didn't even have the navigational compass, yeah?

wouldn't something like fluidics be in their grasp?

Maybe. Smedlyman has outlined why they wouldn't have bothered.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:10 AM on March 1, 2013


To learn programming on a Roman computer, the first lesson is always "Ave, Mundi."
posted by growli at 9:17 AM on March 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


wouldn't something like fluidics be in their grasp?
Maybe. Smedlyman has outlined why they wouldn't have bothered.

Besides, fluidics are notoriously unreliable.

Why, Zero once misplaced the entire 13th century (sic) -- Dante, corrupt popes and all -- much to the embarrassment of Sir Ralph Richardson.

Poor old 13th century. . . .
 
posted by Herodios at 9:23 AM on March 1, 2013


DU: "Ooh, I've never heard of Lest Darkness Fall. And de Camp knew his ancient tools and mechanisms, so this should be good."

Yeah, LDF is pretty fun. It's refreshingly short, and the protagonist is not entirely successful, which lends some realism.

Fred Pohl later wrote a short short parody of it called, "The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass." That's amusing, too.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:24 AM on March 1, 2013


I'd think it more likely that the Sumerians/Babylonians would create the first digital computer. Of course, then we'd probably be stuck with converting everything back and forth between base 60 and base 2, and have displays that were 960x600 pixels...
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:37 AM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wonder if the functioning of a binary computer like digi-comp would be comprehensible to an abacus user after training.
posted by jepler at 9:45 AM on March 1, 2013


To learn programming on a Roman computer, the first lesson is always "Ave, Mundi."

Surely you'd want the vocative singular, munde.

I suppose you could make an argument for the dative mundo--"Hello to the world"--but I'm no expert.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 9:47 AM on March 1, 2013


It’s important to note that I’m not a historian, I’m a computer engineer

Yeah, no kidding.

How an engineer sees this problem: Could a time-travelling engineer from the 21st Century tell a Roman how to do it? Then the Romans could have done it.
How a historian sees this problem: Why couldn't the Romans imagine how to do it themselves? What mathematical ideas, and what social structures, would've needed to exist before they could?

The history of technology isn't separable from intellectual and social history except in silly time-travel thought experiments. The computer can't exist before you can imagine abstract labor-power (and thence abstract computation) — it's a product of the factory age.
posted by RogerB at 9:49 AM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


“One of the main causes of the fall of the Roman Empire was that, lacking zero, they had no way to indicate successful termination of their C programs” ~ Robert Firt
posted by Lanark at 10:08 AM on March 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


Romans understood neither electricity nor magnetism.

You know that they didn't even have the navigational compass, yeah?


Yeah, or, as I already pointed out, a whole bunch of other things. I think the consensus at this point is that it wasn't really possible socially, conceptually, but at the very outside it might have sort of, possibly, been technologically possible. But those first two things are basically insurmountable hurdles to overcome. So, yes, it has already well and truly rained on the parade of this being remotely possible.

So now I think we're firmly in the realm of goofy technological speculation.
posted by delicious-luncheon at 10:14 AM on March 1, 2013


At MacHack 96 Barry Semo did an excellent hack called "When In Rome" that made the Mac use roman numerals everywhere. It was hilarious to see all standard Mac UI populated with stuff like "File size: MCXIX bytes".

His INIT just patched StringToNum and NumToString, substituting his own romanic versions.
posted by w0mbat at 10:29 AM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


So now I think we're firmly in the realm of goofy technological speculation.

So, like the Flintstonii?

"Eh. . . It's a living."
 
posted by Herodios at 10:36 AM on March 1, 2013


DU: round pipe diameter at a perpendicular = flow rate

You seem to have forgotten about pressure. In a city with multiple-story houses, this is an issue.
Nope, didn't forget about it; it simply wasn't a variable they could control. They didn't actively pump water up into tanks as we do; they diverted natural streams for miles into the city, and the pressure at any given general area along the aqueduct was roughly the same.

Also: you're mocking them for having an inexact tax system; yet it brought in the revenues they needed without creating massive public outcries about the inequities of the system. Pick on them for something they didn't do well, like... I dunno, I guess making shoddy roads is off the list. Good public sanitation for the age. There's got to ba a technology they sucked at, while others succeeded...
posted by IAmBroom at 11:01 AM on March 1, 2013


Pity the Life of Brian reference was already made.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:09 AM on March 1, 2013


This reminds me of an AK Dewdney Scientific Anerican column from.. April 1985? Where he describes a hypothetical ancient Mayan computer built entirely of ropes and pulleys. It's largely plausible.

(Also, to the derail about water measuring, the hole-in-board is still how private water rights are often expressed in the US, at least Nevada County NID water in California.)
posted by Nelson at 11:12 AM on March 1, 2013


The combination of reading this thread and listening to the History of Rome podcast this morning now has me wondering what a Roman-era community weblog would be like.

I'm guessing lots of derails about the brutality of the legions.
posted by COBRA! at 11:17 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is certainly worth reading if you'd like to see modern (for certain values of modern) technologies applied in the past (it is also quite funny):

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is an 1889 novel by American humorist and writer Mark Twain.

In it, a Yankee engineer from Connecticut is accidentally transported back in time to the court of King Arthur, where he fools the inhabitants of that time into thinking he is a magician - and soon uses his knowledge of modern technology to become a "magician" in earnest, stunning the English of the Early Middle Ages with such feats as demolitions, fireworks and the shoring up of a holy well. He attempts to modernize the past, but in the end he is unable to prevent the death of Arthur and an interdict against him by the Catholic Church of the time, which grows fearful of his power.

Twain wrote the book as a burlesque of Romantic notions of chivalry after being inspired by a dream in which he was a knight himself, and severely inconvenienced by the weight and cumbersome nature of his armor.
posted by ersatz at 11:30 AM on March 1, 2013


A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is an 1889 novel by American humorist and writer Mark Twain.

tl;dr;saw the movie;did rollerblade tricks in my grandmas backyard
posted by Copronymus at 12:01 PM on March 1, 2013


They had an economy based on slavery. Not just for strong backs, but for intellect (many slaves were teachers - the problems with which, e.g. the spoiled noble student putting the more intelligent/authoritative teacher but slave in their place and the problems which ensued - was the subject of a lot of plays).

Slavery, or rather, the demand for submission of another human such that they have no "self" other than serving their master, is always going to corrode advances and destroy complexity. Not just because why should the slave work any harder to make the world a better place if they have no place in it, but because domination/submission becomes more important than any other social trait in how society functions so there is where all the resources are directed.


Surely the stock trope in ancient comedy is the clever slave who gets the better of the foolish or otherwise objectionable master? Indeed, topsy-turvy is a time honored trope. We see it today in blue collar situation comedy, where the sassy employee is smarter and cleverer than the boss. But I wouldn't read too much into that.

I'm not sure about the second conjecture either. People are complex and varied, and so are their motivations. It's SOP for employees to work for companies and surrender all rights to the work (and patents) they create, but do so regardless for the thrill of the hunt. Granted, not quite the same level of control over the individual as legal slavery, but I don't think the creative impulse necessarily shuts down just because of an unequal social/labor system. Cicero's slave Marcus Tullius Tiro is credited with inventing shorthand. Who came up with other early innovations we will never know, but it seems to me that those closest to the work itself are generally the most likely to find the labor saving way of doing it.

(Surprised no one has mentioned the mechanical reaper among the Roman inventions inventory.)
posted by IndigoJones at 2:51 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


The combination of reading this thread and listening to the History of Rome podcast this morning now has me wondering what a Roman-era community weblog would be like.

I'm guessing lots of derails about the brutality of the legions.


Some clues.
posted by invitapriore at 2:56 PM on March 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


The Romans killed the Greeks, burned their cities, and then ploughed them into the ground.

Given such a mindset ... consider that "proudly ignorant" is still a feature today ... and then consider doing Roman math ... XXVI + MCDXL ... you've got to be kidding.
posted by Twang at 3:46 PM on March 1, 2013


The Romans killed the Greeks, burned their cities, and then ploughed them into the ground.

I think you have Greece confused with Carthage. The Romans conquered the Greeks, taxed the shit out of them, carried off a lot of slaves, but they actually were great admirers of Greek culture and made ripped off quite a bit of Greek ideas for their own use.

It was Carthage that gave them so much trouble in the trade and conquest department that when they finally conquered the place they salted the earth so nothing would ever grow there again.
posted by localroger at 4:05 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


And the salting thing is a 19th century fabrication. Although it would've come in handy when they figured out hash table lookups.
posted by condour75 at 4:09 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, Carthage has phenomenal harbor access; it was rebuilt and quite prominent during the Roman period. It's not like the Greek city states were absent their "sieges" and "epic battles" and "opportunities to later coerce Brad Pitt into a tiny leather skirt."
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:48 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Who came up with other early innovations we will never know, but it seems to me that those closest to the work itself are generally the most likely to find the labor saving way of doing it.

Typically though, that's in spite of the general order. And the Romans had some serious ways of enforcing order.

On the other hand, if we grant them software and the internet, having a larger penis, longer erection time, and sending endless e-mails harkening back to the better days when all Romans were farmers to the grandkids would be a big incentive to break that order and drive technology.

Porn seems to have driven a lot of technologies in human history too.
But most technology, historically, was used to centralize and reinforce hierarchy. And much of it after it's invented is re-purposed to do that (Television, say).

In this case though, if they did come up with the technological innovation, they'd still be vulnerable socially because their social system was fragile.

Individual empowerment drives hierarchy into the ground. Gunpowder. Printing press. Etc. They were suppressed until they were embraced when a technique could be found to repurpose them.

In creating a computer in the Roman era we're talking the need for information flow - the democratization of knowledge to borrow a term - without a commensurate advance in insulation from political pressure.
Typically the reaction is greater economic oppression.

Crassus as an example. Put down Sparticus' rebellion (brutally). Made his money with a private fire department bargaining with people who's property was burning down.

Augustus comes along and creates the Praetorians who are political and the Vigiles who are, for their time, the most politically insulated force in Rome. The Praetorians become political assassins (until they're dissolved) the Vigiles become firefighters.

Slavery goes on. And things are worse for people in general regardless. As techniques for keeping slaves advanced, big slave owners absorbed small slave owners. Unemployment grew along with disorder and the need for oppression.

More interesting an idea might be if the Romans did develop the computer, how would that have affected the world.

I think it would have precipitated their fall.


After the conquests of Scipio Africanus, the empire would have fallen early having lost most of its money in a scheme to help wealthy ivory merchant Publius Rufinus in the Ifriqiya province recover a large sum of money trapped in an overseas bank in exchange for a startling percentage of the reward.

Then cyberfeudalism.

Immensely wealthy royal houses like the Habsburgs with privileged local lords keeping track of their serfs with computerized time sheets, occasional peasant revolts over the division of labor ... well, pretty much what we're wrestling with now without the inbreeding.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:26 PM on March 1, 2013


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