Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Even Without Math, Ancients Engineered Sophisticated Machines

Date:
October 4, 2007
Source:
Harvard University
Summary:
Move over, Archimedes. A researcher at Harvard University is finding that ancient Greek craftsmen were able to engineer sophisticated machines without necessarily understanding the mathematical theory behind their construction. Recent analysis of technical treatises and literary sources dating back to the fifth century B.C. reveals that technology flourished among practitioners with limited theoretical knowledge.

Move over, Archimedes. A researcher at Harvard University is finding that ancient Greek craftsmen were able to engineer sophisticated machines without necessarily understanding the mathematical theory behind their construction.

Related Articles


Recent analysis of technical treatises and literary sources dating back to the fifth century B.C. reveals that technology flourished among practitioners with limited theoretical knowledge.

"Craftsmen had their own kind of knowledge that didn't have to be based on theory," explains Mark Schiefsky, professor of the classics in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. "They didn't all go to Plato's Academy to learn geometry, and yet they were able to construct precisely calibrated devices."

The balance, used to measure weight throughout the ancient world, best illustrates Schiefsky's findings on the distinction between theoretical and practitioner's knowledge. Working with a group led by Jόrgen Renn, Director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Schiefsky has found that the steelyard--a balance with unequal arms--was in use as early as the fourth and fifth centuries B.C., before Archimedes and other thinkers of the Hellenistic era gave a mathematical demonstration of its theoretical foundations.

"People assume that Archimedes was the first to use the steelyard because they suppose you can't create one without knowing the law of the lever. In fact, you can--and people did. Craftsmen had their own set of rules for making the scale and calibrating the device," says Schiefsky.

Practical needs, as well as trial-and-error, led to the development of technologies such as the steelyard.

"If someone brings a 100-pound slab of meat to the agora, how do you weigh it?" Schiefsky asks. "It would be nice to have a 10-pound counterweight instead of a 100-pound counterweight, but to do so you need to change the balance point and ostensibly understand the principle of proportionality between weight and distance from the fulcrum. Yet, these craftsmen were able to use and calibrate these devices without understanding the law of the lever."

Craftsmen learned to improve these machines through productive use, over the course of their careers, Schiefsky says.

With the rise of mathematical knowledge in the Hellenistic era, theory came to exert a greater influence on the development of ancient technologies. The catapult, developed in the third century B.C., provides evidence of the ways in which engineering became systematized.

With the help of literary sources and data from archaeological excavations, "We can actually trace when the ancients started to use mathematical methods to construct the catapult," notes Schiefsky. "The machines were built and calibrated precisely."

Alexandrian kings developed and patronized an active research program to further refine the catapult. Through experimentation and the application of mathematical methods, such as those developed by Archimedes, craftsmen were able to construct highly powerful machines. Twisted animal sinews helped to increase the power of the launching arm, which could hurl stones weighing 50 pounds or more.

The catapult had a large impact on the politics of the ancient world.

"You could suddenly attack a city that had previously been impenetrable," Schiefsky explains. "These machines changed the course of history."

According to Schiefsky, the interplay between theoretical knowledge and practical know-how is crucial to the history of Western science.

"It's important to explore what the craftsmen did and didn't know," Schiefsky says, "so that we can better understand how their work fits into the arc of scientific development."

Schiefsky's research is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Harvard University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Harvard University. "Even Without Math, Ancients Engineered Sophisticated Machines." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 October 2007. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071002144301.htm>.
Harvard University. (2007, October 4). Even Without Math, Ancients Engineered Sophisticated Machines. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 28, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071002144301.htm
Harvard University. "Even Without Math, Ancients Engineered Sophisticated Machines." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/10/071002144301.htm (accessed November 28, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Computers & Math News

Friday, November 28, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Recharge Your Phone in 30 Seconds? Israeli Firm Says It Can

Recharge Your Phone in 30 Seconds? Israeli Firm Says It Can

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Nov. 28, 2014) — With consumers demanding more and more from their mobile devices, scientists in Israel and Singapore are developing super fast-charging batteries to power them. Amy Pollock has more. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
EU Pushes Google For Worldwide Right To Be Forgotten

EU Pushes Google For Worldwide Right To Be Forgotten

Newsy (Nov. 27, 2014) — Privacy regulators recommend Google expand its requested removals to apply to all its web domains. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Predictions Of Tablets' Demise Sound Familiar

Predictions Of Tablets' Demise Sound Familiar

Newsy (Nov. 26, 2014) — The tablet's days are numbered, at least according to a recent IDC report. The market-research firm paints a grim outlook for tablets. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Today's Prostheses Are More Capable Than Ever

Today's Prostheses Are More Capable Than Ever

Newsy (Nov. 26, 2014) — Advances in prosthetics are making replacement body parts stronger and more lifelike than they’ve ever been. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories

 

Space & Time

Matter & Energy

Computers & Math

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins