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Nov 24, 2020

The Roman Empire grew. Philosophy and the practical applications derived from great thinkers were no longer just to impress peers or mystify the commoners into passivity but to help humans do more. The focus on practical applications was clear. This isn’t to say there weren’t great Romans. We got Seneca, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Tacitus, Lucretius, Plotinus, Marcus Aurelius, one of my favorite Hypatia, and as Christianity spread we got the Cristian Philosophers in Rome such as Saint Augustine. 

The Romans reached into new lands and those lands reached back, with attacks coming by the Goths, Germanic tribes, Vandals, and finally resulting in the sack of Rome. They had been weakened by an overreliance on slaves, overspending on military to fuel the constant expansion, government corruption due to a lack of control given the sheer size of the empire, and the need to outsource the military due to the fact that Roman citizens needed to run the empire. Rome would split in 285 and by the fourth century fell.

Again, as empires fall new ones emerge. As the Classical Period ended in each area with the decline of the Roman Empire, we were plunged into the Middle Ages, which I was taught was the Dark Ages in school. But they weren’t dark. Byzantine, the Eastern Roman Empire survived. The Franks founded Francia in northern Gaul. The Celtic Britons emerged. The Visigoths setup shop in Northern Spain. The Lombards in Northern Italy. The Slavs spread through Central and Eastern Europe and the Latin language splintered into the Romance languages. 

And that spread involved Christianity, whose doctrine often classed with the ancient philosophies. And great thinkers weren’t valued. Or so it seemed when I was taught about the Dark Ages. But words matter. The Prophet Muhammad was born in this period and Islamic doctrine spread rapidly throughout the Middle East. He united the tribes of Medina and established a Constitution in the sixth century. After years of war with Mecca, he later seized the land. He then went on to conquer the Arabian Peninsula, up into the lands of the Byzantines and Persians. With the tribes of Arabia united, Muslims would conquer the last remains of Byzantine Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and take large areas of Persia. 

This rapid expansion, as it had with the Greeks and Romans, led to new trade routes, and new ideas finding their way to the emerging Islamic empire. In the beginning they destroyed pagan idols but over time adapted Greek and Roman technology and thinking into their culture. They Brough maps, medicine, calculations, and agricultural implants. They learned paper making from the Chinese and built paper mills allowing for an explosion in books. Muslim scholars in Baghdad, often referred to as New Babylon given that it’s only 60 miles away. They began translating some of the most important works from Greek and Latin and Islamic teachings encouraged the pursuit of knowledge at the time. Many a great work from the Greeks and Romans is preserved because of those translations. 

And as with each empire before them, the Islamic philosophers and engineers built on the learning of the past. They used astrolabes in navigation, chemistry in ceramics and dyes, researched acids and alkalis. They brought knowledge from Pythagoras and Babylonians and studied lines and spaces and geometry and trigonometry, integrating them into art and architecture. Because Islamic law forbade dissections, they used the Greek texts to study medicine.  

The technology and ideas of their predecessors helped them retain control throughout the Islamic Golden Age. The various Islamic empires spread East into China, down the African coast, into Russia, into parts of Greece, and even North into Spain where they ruled for 800 years. Some grew to control over 10 million square miles. They built fantastic clockworks, documented by al-Jazari in the waning days of the golden age. And the writings included references to influences in Greece and Rome, including the Book of Optics by Ibn Al-Haytham in the ninth century, which is heavily influenced by Ptolemy’s book, Optics. But over time, empires weaken. 

Throughout the Middle Ages, monarchs began to be deposed by rising merchant classes, or oligarchs. What the framers of the US Constitution sought to block with the way the government is structured. You can see this in the way the House of Lords had such power in England even after the move to a constitutional monarchy. And after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has moved more and more towards a rule by oligarchs first under Yeltsin and then under Putin. Because you see, we continue to re-learn the lessons learned by the Greeks. But differently. Kinda’ like bell bottoms are different than all the other times they were cool each time they come back. 

The names of European empires began to resemble what we know today: Wales, England, Scotland, Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, Germany, and France were becoming dominant forces again. The Catholic Church was again on the rise as Rome practiced a new form of conquering the world. Two main religions were coming more and more in conflict for souls: Christianity and Islam.

And so began the Crusades of the High Middle Ages. Crusaders brought home trophies. Many were books and scientific instruments. And then came the Great Famine followed quickly by the Black Death, which spread along with trade and science and knowledge along the Silk Road. Climate change and disease might sound familiar today. France and England went to war for a hundred years. Disruption in the global order again allows for new empires. Ghengis Khan built a horde of Mongols that over the next few generations spread through China, Korea, India, Georgia and the Caucasus, Russia, Central Asia and Persia, Hungary, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Vietnam, Baghdad, Syria, Poland, and even Thrace throughout the 11th to 13th centuries. Many great works were lost in the wars, although the Mongols often allowed their subjects to continue life as before, with a hefty tax of course. They would grow to control 24 million square kilometers before the empires became unmanageable. 

This disruption caused various peoples to move and one was a Turkic tribe fleeing Central Asia that under Osman I in the 13th century. The Ottomon empire he founded would go Islamic and grow to include much of the former Islamic regime as they expanded out of Turkey, including Greece Northern Africa. Over time they would also invade and rule Greece and almost all the way north to Kiev, and south through the lands of the former Mesopotamian empires. While they didn’t conquer the Arabian peninsula, ruled by other Islamic empires, they did conquer all the way to Basra in the South and took Damascus, Medina, and Mecca, and Jerusalem. Still, given the density of population in some cities they couldn’t grow past the same amount of space controlled in the days of Alexander. But again, knowledge was transferred to and from Egypt, Greece, and the former Mesopotamian lands. And with each turnover to a new empire more of the great works were taken from these cradles of civilization but kept alive to evolve further. 

And one way science and math and philosophy and the understanding of the universe evolved was to influence the coming Renaissance, which began in the late 13th century and spread along with Greek scholars fleeing the Ottoman Turks after the fall of Constantinople throughout the Italian city-states and into England, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, and Spain. Hellenism was on the move again. The works of Aristotle, Ptolemy, Plato, and others heavily influenced the next wave of mathematicians, astronomers, philosophers, and scientists. Copernicus studied Aristotle. Leonardo Da Vinci gave us the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, the Vitruvian Man, Salvator Mundi, and Virgin of the Rocks. His works are amongst the most recognizable paintings of the Renaissance. But he was also a great inventor, sketching and perhaps building automata, parachutes, helicopters, tanks, and along the way putting optics, anatomy, hydrodynamics and engineering concepts in his notebooks. And his influences certainly included the Greeks and Romans, including the Roman physician Galen. Given that his notebooks weren’t published they offer a snapshot in time rather than a heavy impact on the evolution of science - although his influence is often seen as a contribution to the scientific revolution. 

Da Vinci, like many of his peers in the Renaissance, learned the great works of the Greeks and Romans. And they learned the teachings in the Bible. They they didn’t just take the word of either and they studied nature directly. The next couple of generations of intellectuals included Galileo. Galileo, effectively as with Socrates and countless other thinkers that bucked the prevailing political or religious climate of the time, by writing down what he saw with his own eyeballs. He picked up where Copernicus left off and discovered the four moons of Jupiter and astronomers continued to espouse that the the sun revolved around the Earth Galileo continued to prove it was in fact suspended in space and map out the movement of the heavenly bodies. 

Clockwork, which had been used in the Greek times, as proven with the Antikypthera device and mentions of Archytas’s dove. Mo Zi and Lu Ban built flying birds. As the Greeks and then Romans fell, that automata as with philosophy and ideas moved to the Islamic world. The ability to build a gear with a number of teeth to perform a function had been building over time. As had ingenious ways to put rods and axles and attach differential gearing. Yi Xing, a Buddhist monk in the Tang Dynasty, would develop the escapement, along with Liang Lingzan in the seventeenths century and the practice spread through China and then spread from there. But now clockwork would get pendulums, springs, and Robert Hook would give us the escapement in 1700, making clocks accurate. And that brings us to the scientific revolution, when most of the stories in the history of computing really start to take shape.

Thanks to great thinkers, philosophers, scientists, artists, engineers, and yes, merchants who could fund innovation and spread progress through formal and informal ties - the age of science is when too much began happening too rapidly to really be able to speak about it meaningfully. The great mathematics and engineering led to industrialization and further branches of knowledge and specializations - eventually including Boolean algebra and armed with thousands of years of slow and steady growth in mechanics and theory and optics and precision, we would get early mechanical computing beginning the much more quick migration out of the Industrial and into the Information Age. These explosions in technology allowed the British Empire to grow to control 34 million square kilometers of territory and the Russian empire to grow to control 17 million before each overextended.

Since writing was developed, humanity has experienced a generation to generation passing of the torch of science, mathematics, and philosophy. From before the Bronze Age, ideas were sometimes independently perceived or sometimes spread through trade from the Chinese, Indian, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian civilizations (and others) through traders like the Phoenicians to the Greeks and Persians - then from the Greeks to the Romans and the Islamic empires during the dark ages then back to Europe during the Renaissance. And some of that went both ways. 

Ultimately, who first introduced each innovation and who influenced whom cannot be pinpointed in a lot of cases. Greeks were often given more credit than they deserved because I think most of us have really fond memories of toga parties in college. But there were generations of people studying all the things and thinking through each field when their other Maslovian needs were met - and those evolving thoughts and philosophies were often attributed to one person rather than all the parties involved in the findings. 

After World War II there was a Cold War - and one of the ways that manifested itself was a race to recruit the best scientists from the losing factions of that war, namely Nazi scientists. Some died while trying to be taken to a better new life, as Archimedes had died when the Romans tried to make him an asset. For better or worse, world powers know they need the scientists if they’re gonna’ science - and that you gotta’ science to stay in power. When the masses start to doubt science, they’re probably gonna’ burn the Library of Alexandria, poison Socrates, exile Galileo for proving the planets revolve around Suns and have their own moons that revolve around them, rather than the stars all revolving around the Earth. There wasn’t necessarily a dark age - but given what the Greeks and Romans and Chinese thinkers knew and the substantial slowdown in those in between periods of great learning, the Renaissance and Enlightenment could have actually come much sooner. Think about that next time you hear people denying science. 

To research this section, I read and took copious notes from the following and apologize that each passage is not credited specifically but it would just look like a regular expressions if I tried: The Evolution of Technology by George Basalla. Civilizations by Filipe Fernández-Armesto, A Short History of Technology: From The Earliest Times to AD 1900 from TK Derry and Trevor I Williams, Communication in History Technology, Culture, Leonardo da vinci by Walter Isaacson, Society from David Crowley and Paul Heyer, Timelines in Science, by the Smithsonian, Wheels, Clocks, and Rockets: A History of Technology by Donald Cardwell, a few PhD dissertations and post-doctoral studies from journals, and then I got to the point where I wanted the information from as close to the sources as I could get so I went through Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences from Galileo Galilei, Mediations from Marcus Aurelius, Pneumatics from Philo of Byzantium, The Laws of Thought by George Boole, Natural History from Pliny The Elder, Cassius Dio’s Roman History, Annals from Tacitus, Orations by Cicero, Ethics, Rhetoric, Metaphysics, and Politics by Aristotle, Plato’s Symposium and The Trial & Execution of Socrates.

For a running list of all books used in this podcast see the GitHub page at