07 April 2008

Learning from The Ancient Engineers

I stumbled across a really wonderful book, L. Sprague de Camp's The Ancient Engineers (partially available online at the Amazon Online Reader). de Camp's better known as a writer of Science Fiction -- a contemporary of Asimov & Heinlein -- but this survey of historical engineering and engineers is both educational and inspiring. Just a few passages...
Civilization, as we know it today, owes its existence to the engineers [...] who, down the long centuries, have learned to exploit the properties of matter and the sources of power for the benefit of mankind. By an organized, rational effort to use the material world around them, engineers devised the myriad comforts and conveniences that mark the difference between our lives and those of our forefathers thousands of years ago. [...]

Invention has been going on ever since our apish ancestors learned to feed a fire and flake a flint. But the conditions under which invention takes place, and the pace of invention, have changed greatly since the beginning of historic times. [...] Progress in civilization depends upon invention, and a rapid rate of invention in turn depends upon the sizable populations that are only possible under civilization. The crucial inventions that made such progress possible -- knowledge of raising domesticated, edible animals and plants -- took place in Syria and Iraq about [10,000 years ago].

The rest of the book showcases inventions and engineered artifacts -- large and small -- worldwide up to the Industrial Revolution. Fantastic stuff!

If only books like this were the summer reading for the newly admitted and arriving MIT students...

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