- Exquisite Rot: Spalted Wood and the Lost Art of Intarsia Daniel Elkind, Public Domain Review
- Classic books: Like ice in children’s hands Alberto Manguel, Times Literary Supplement
- Our aquatic universe Tim Folger, Aeon
- From eternity to here: the Rome we have lost Ingrid Rowland, Commonweal
Have you ever learned about an amazing invention–whether it was the Baghdad battery or the ancient Roman steam engine or Chinese firecrackers–and wondered why it didn’t do more to change the world? In this podcast, we examine a selection of curiosities and explore hypotheses for why their inventors didn’t use them to full effect.
We move VERY quickly through a range of fascinating examples and hypotheses, and therefore leave a lot up to discussion. We hope to see your thoughts, feedback, and additions in the comments section!
For any invention that you want to learn more about, see the links below:
In the 2nd millennium BC, a “palace” (now thought to be a building that served as administrative, trade, and gathering hub) had running-water toilet flushing. Much like the Roman Cloaca Maxima, likely a HUGE public-health benefit, but basically died out. Does this show that military protection/staving off the “Dark Ages” was the only way to maintain amazing inventions?
The Nimrud lens
Whether it was a fire-starter, a magnifying glass, or (for some overeager astronomy enthusaists), the Neo-Assyrian ground-crystal Nimrud lens is an invention thousands of years out of place. While the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all used lenses of different sorts, and glass-blowing was certainly popular by the 1st century BC in Roman Egypt, no glass lenses were made until the Middle Ages and the potential scientific and engineering uses of lenses–that can hardly be understated even in their 16th-to-18th-century applications–had to wait another couple millennia. Many devices like the Baghdad battery and Antikythera device are heralded for their possible engineering genius, but this seems like a simple one with readily available applications that disappeared from the historical record.
Hero of Alexandria’s steam engine
In the 1st century AD, Hero was a master of simple machines (that were mostly used for plays) and also invented a force pump, a wind-powered machine, even an early vending machine. However, he is likely most famous for his Aeolipile, a rotating steam engine that used heated water to spin an axle. The best attested use of this is for devotion to the divine and party tricks.
The ancient mechanical reaper
Ancient Gallo-Romans (or just Gauls) invented a novel way of grain harvesting: rather than using sickles or scythes, they used a mechanical reaper, 1700 years before Cyrus McCormick more than tripled the productivity of American farmers. This antiquated device literally but the cart before the oxen and required two men to operate: one man to drive the beasts, and another to knock the ears off the stalk (this reaper was obviously far less sophisticated than McCormick’s). This invention did not survive the Volkswanderung period.
Note: the horse collar (which allowed horses to be used to plow) was invented in 1600-1400 BC in China AND the Levant, but was not applied widely until 1000 AD in Europe. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horse_collar.
Madhav, an Indian doctor, compiled hundreds of cures in his Nidana, including an inoculation against smallpox that showed an understanding of disease transmission (he would take year-old smallpox-infected flesh and touch it to a recently made cutaneous wound). However, the next 13 centuries did not see Indian medical understanding of viruses or bacteria, or even copied techniques of this, development. https://books.google.com/books?id=Hkc3QnbagK4C&pg=PA105&lpg=PA105&dq=madhav+indian+smallpox+inoculation&source=bl&ots=4RFPuvbf5Y&sig=iyDaNUs4u5N7xHH6-pvlbAY9fcQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwic8e-1-JXVAhUp6IMKHfw3DLsQ6AEIOjAD#v=onepage&q=madhav%20indian%20smallpox%20inoculation&f=false
At least, thank god, their methods of giving nose jobs to those who had had their noses cut off as a punishment survived: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_rhinoplasty
List of all chinese inventions:
Gunpowder was discovered by Chinese alchemists attempting to discover the elixir of life (irony, no?)
(maybe a good corollary would be Greek fire, which was used effectively in naval warfare by the Byzantines, but which was not improved upon and the recipe of which is still secret: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_fire)
The Chinese invented the printing press possibly as early as the 6th century. However, unlike the explosion of literacy seen in much of Europe (particularly Protestant Europe–see our last podcast), the Chinese masses never learned to read. In fact, in 1950 fewer than 20% of Chinese citizens were literate. Compare this to Europe, where some societies saw literacy rates of as high as 90% (Sweden, Male population) in some societies within a few centuries of the introduction of the printing press. Why? There may be several reasons–cultural, religious, political–but in our opinion, it would have to be the characters: 100,000 blocks were needed to create a single set.
They also invented pulped paper by the 2nd century BC: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Chinese_inventions.
Invented by 200 BC for divination and used for navigation by the Song dynasty; despite this and the availability of easily colonizable islands within easy sailing distance, the Chinese did not colonize Indonesia, Polynesia, or Oceania, while the Europeans did within the century after they developed the technology and first sailed there.
While they did not invent the rudder, they invented the “medial, axial, and vertical” sternpost rudder that would become standard in Europe almost 1,000 years before it was used in Europe (1st century AD vs 11th century).
The Chinese discovered “fire wells” (natural gas near the surface) and erected shrines to worship there.
They even understood their potential for fuel, but never developed beyond primitive burning and bamboo piping despite having advanced mining techniques for it by the 1st century BC.
Hydraulic powered fan: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fan_(machine)#History
Cuppola furnace for smelting and molding iron: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupola_furnace.
Coke as a fuel source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coke_(fuel).
Belt-drive spinning wheel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coke_(fuel).
The Precolumbian wheel
The pre- and early Mayans had toys that utilized primitive wheels, but did not use them for any labor-saving purpose (even their gods were depicted carrying loads on their backs). This may have been because scaling up met with mechanical difficulties, but the potential utility of wheels in this case with a bit of investment literally sat unrealized for centuries.
The following book contained some of our hypotheses:
The rest of our hypotheses were amalgamated from our disparate classes in economics and history, but none of them are our own or uncommon in academic circles. Thanks for listening!
So, my brother (Keith Kallmes, graduate of the University of Minnesota in economics and history) and I have decided to start podcasting some of our ideas. The topics we hope to discuss range from ancient coinage to modern medical ethics, but with a general background of economic history. I have posted here our first episode, the Old Deluder Satan Act. This early American legislation, passed by the Massachusetts Bay Colonists, displays some of the key values that we posit as causes of New England’s principal role in the Industrial Revolution. The episode:
We hope you enjoy this 20-minute discussion of the history of literacy, religion, and prosperity, and we are also happy to get feedback, episode suggestions, and further discussion in the comments below. Lastly, we have included links to some of the sources cited in the podcast.
Abstract of Becker and Woessman’s “Was Weber Wrong?”
In 1519, Hernán Cortés landed 500 men in 11 ships on the coast of the Yucatan, knowing that he was openly disobeying the governor of Cuba and that he was facing unknown numbers of potential enemies in an unknown situation. Regardless of the moral implications, what happened next was strategically extraordinary: he and his men formed a local alliance, and despite having to beat a desperate retreat on La Noche Triste, they conquered the second largest empire in the New World. As the expeditionary force landed, Cortés made a tactically irrational decision: he scuttled all but one of his ships. In doing so, he hamstrung his own maneuverability, scouting, and communication and supply lines, but he gained one incredible advantage: the complete commitment of his men to the mission, for as Cortés himself said, “If we are going home, we are going in our foes’ ships.” This strategic choice highlights the difference between logic and economists’ concept of “rationality,” in that illogical destruction of one’s own powerful and expensive tools creates a credible commitment that can overcome a serious problem in warfare, that of desertion or cowardice. While Cortés certainly increased the risk to his own life and that of his men, the powerful psychology of being trapped by necessity brought out the very best of the fighting spirit in his men, leading to his dramatic victory.
This episode is certainly not unique in the history of warfare, and was not only enacted by leaders as a method of ensuring commitment, but actually underlay the seemingly crazy (or at least overly risky) cultural practices of several ancient groups. The pervasiveness of these psychological strategies shows that, whether each case was because of a genius decision or an accident of history, they conferred a substantial advantage to their practitioners. (If you are interested in how rational choices are revealed in the history of warfare, please also feel free to read about hostage exchanges and ransoming practices from an earlier blog!) I have collected some of the most interesting examples that I know of, but the following is certainly not an exhaustive list and I encourage other episodes to be mentioned in the comments:
- Julian the Apostate
- Julian the Apostate is most famous for his attempt to reverse Constantine the Great’s Christianization of the Roman Empire, but he was also an ambitious general whose audacity gained him an incredible victory over Germanic invaders against steep odds. He wanted to reverse the stagnation of Roman interests on the Eastern front, where the Sasanian empire had been challenging the Roman army since the mid-3rd century. Having gathered an overwhelming force, he marched to the Euphrates river, took ships from there to the Sasanian capital, while the Sasanians used slash-and-burn tactics to slow his advance. When Julian found the capital (Ctesiphon) undefended, he worried that his men would want to loot the capital and return homeward, continuing the status quo of raiding and retreating. To prevent this, in a move much like that of Cortés, he set fire to his ships and forced his men to press on. In his case, this did not end with stunning victory; Julian overextended his front, was killed, and lost the campaign. Julian’s death shows the very real risks involved in this bold strategy.
- Julius Caesar
- Julian may have taken his cue from a vaunted Roman historical figure. Dramatized perfectly by HBO, the great Roman general and statesman Julius Caesar made huge gamble by taking on the might of the Roman Senate. Despite being heavily outnumbered (over 2 to 1 on foot and as much as 5 to 1 in cavalry), Caesar committed to a decisive battle against his rival Pompey in Greece. While Pompey’s troops had the option of retreating, Caesar relied on the fact that his legionaries had their backs to the Mediterranean, effectively trapping them and giving them no opportunity to rout. While Caesar also tactically out-thought Pompey (he used cunning deployment of reserves to stymie a cavalry charge and break Pompey’s left flank), the key to his victory was that Pompey’s numerically superior force ran first; Pompey met his grisly end shortly thereafter in Egypt, and Caesar went on to gain power over all of Rome.
- The impact of the Teutones on the Roman cultural memory proved so enduring that Teutonic is used today to refer to Germanic peoples, despite the fact that the Teutones themselves were of unknown linguistic origin (they could very well have been Celtic). The Teutones and their allies, the Cimbri, smashed Roman armies which were better trained and equipped multiple times in a row; later Roman authors said they were possessed by the Furor Teutonicus, as they seemed to posses an irrational lack of fear, never fleeing before the enemy. Like many Celtic and Germanic peoples of Northern Europe, the Teutones exhibited a peculiar cultural practice to give an incentive to their men in battle: all of the tribe’s women, children, and supplies were drawn up on wagons behind the men before battles, where the women would take up axes to kill any man who attempted to flee. In doing so, they solved the collective action problem which plagued ancient armies in which a few men running could quickly turn into a rout. If you ran, not only would you die, but your wife and children would as well, and this psychological edge allowed a roving tribe to place the powerful Roman empire in jeopardy for a decade.
- The Persian emperors
- The earliest recorded example of paradoxical risk as a battle custom is the Persian imperial practice of bringing the women, children, and treasure of the emperor and noble families to the war-camp. This seems like a needless and reckless risk, as it would turn a defeat into a disaster in the loss of family and fortune. However, this case is comparable to that of the Teutones, in that it demonstrated the credible commitment of the emperor and nobles to victory, and used this raising of the stakes to incentivize bravery. While the Persians did conquer much of the known world under the nearly mythical leadership of Cyrus the Great, this strategy backfired for the last Achaemenid Persian emperor: when Darius III confronted Alexander the Great at Issus, Alexander’s crack hypaspist troops routed Darius’ flank as well as Darius himself! The imperial family and a great hoard of silver fell into Alexander’s hands, and he would go on to conquer the entirety of the Persian empire.
These examples show the diversity of cultural and personal illustrations of the rational choice theory and psychological warfare that typified some of the most successful military leaders and societies. As the Roman military writer Vegetius stated, “an adversary is more hurt by desertion than slaughter.” Creating unity of purpose is by no means an easy task, and balancing the threat of death by frontline combat with the threat of death during a rout was a problem that plagued leaders from the earliest recorded histories forward (in ancient Greek battles, there were few casualties on the line of battle and the majority of casualties took place during flight from the battlefield. This made the game theoretical choice for each soldier an interesting balance of possibly dying on the line but living if ONLY he ran away, but having a much higher risk of death if a critical mass of troops ran away–perhaps this will be fodder for a future post?). This was a salient and even vital issue for leaders to overcome, and despite the high risks that led to the fall of both Julian and Darius, forcing credible commitment to battle is a fascinating strategy with good historical support for its success. The modern implications of credible commitment problems range from wedding rings to climate accords, but very few modern practices utilize the “illogical rationality” of intentional destruction of secondary options. I continue to wonder what genius, or what society, will come up with a novel application of this concept, and I look forward to seeing the results.
P.S.–thanks to Keith Kallmes for the idea for this article and for helping to write it. Truly, it is his economic background that leads to many of these historical questions about rational choice and human ingenuity in the face of adversity.
- the Economist endorses the Liberal Democrats in UK election (in Europe, a liberal democrat is roughly the same thing as a libertarian in the US)
- “One of the most important lessons of Trump’s success is that classically liberal rhetoric and positions were not very important to voters.“
- “It turns out that Westerners are rational, virtuous, and liberty-loving, while Orientals are irrational, vicious, and slavish.“
- The West is indifferent to Afghanistan and Iraq’s world of terror
- Roman slavery, revolution, and magic mushrooms
- What the fuck?
A recent article in the Economist describes the results from a study of an interesting Japanese custom. Traditionally (and according to the civil code until 1945), company ownership and leadership were passed on through primogeniture. This custom has continued to be practiced, and the study found solid evidence that family-managed companies outperform professionally managed companies. It could be argued that family unofficial training, continuity, and trust are at the root of this, but the authors find a different reason: adoption.
Japan and the US lead the world in adoption rate, but Japanese adoption is not necessarily what you would think. Over 90% of Japanese adoptions are of adults, who are usually men adopted into childless (or more specifically son-less) families for business purposes. This is also quite traditional, and since Japanese birth rates are extremely low, Japanese businessmen are likely to continue adopting talented, ambitious single men. This is often also accompanied by marriage to the daughter of the businessman (while women participate in business in Japan, they are more rarely the executives), which is referred to as mukoyoshi and combines familial with business ties.
This practice has the advantage of allowing for the trust, mutual investment, and long-term planning and teaching based on family relationship while avoiding the risk of having an unfit successor. In fact, in reading this, I am reminded of another culture’s custom of adoption: ancient Rome.
Ancient Rome also had a custom of adoption among its upper classes because of the prestige associated with old patrician family names and the incentives of inheritance laws (for a time it also served as a political means of a patrician gaining the tribuneship, as the Gracchi did). Similarly to the Japanese businessmen, adopted sons tended to excel (the earliest and best example is the Republican general Scipio Aemilianus), and it served as a method of political alliance and developing shared interest. It also became a typical method of succession for Roman emperors in the case that no son was available, a deal needed to be made between factions, or an emperor had a favored successor to whom he was not related. Adopted emperors included Trajan (adopted by Nerva as deal with the army, successful and beloved military leader), Hadrian (great builder and patron of the arts), and Marcus Aurelius (famed general and philosopher), and were generally well-reputed and effective leaders. In contrast, the sons of emperors (such as Domitian and Commodus, who were both infamously insane and harmful, or Maxentius, whose usurpation followed a blood-based claim) or blood-based successors (such as Caligula, who was blood-thirsty and childish, Nero, who was brutal and wasteful, and Elegabalus, who had was more interested in orgies than leadership).
It seems that the same potential reasons underlying Japanese business success through adoption were also at work in antiquity: emperors who were chosen and bred based on their abilities provided the continuity associated with heredity but with the advantage of meritocratic selection. This raises the question of whether this advantage has somehow been passed over by the Western world in those cases where we have avoided family-based succession in business (based on worries about nepotism and/or to gain the advantages of meritocratic selection). Even more interesting, does the adoption practice maintain the freedom of choice and opportunity found in Western careers while also conferring the ability to maintain trust and continuity that family-based succession offers?