Archive for the ‘invention’ Category

The following is based on part eight of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). This one is about the rise of industry:

In the late 1700s there were three revolutions: one in France, one in America and one in England. In France and America they overthrew their kings and said that all men are created equal and born with certain rights. In England they did not do that, they did something even better: through the rise of industry they gave the man in the street a degree of wealth and freedom that in the past belonged only to kings and other top people.

We are still in the middle of that Industrial Revolution – or we better be because there are still plenty of things to get right. But despite all of its evils, the old days were far worse: many died of the plague or childbirth, ordinary people did not have soap, cotton underwear or glass in their windows – things we take for granted. We feel we can make of our lives what we want of them – in the old days it was hard work from sunup to sundown. Where would most of us be if we were born before 1800?

The revolution was made by men who thought in just that way:

  • that life is what you make of it: we are not ruled by the stars or fate;
  • that inventions should be useful for the man in the street, not just playthings for the rich;
  • that science is not just about the truth, as it was for Newton and Galileo, but about making society better.

A man in America in those days who was just like that was Benjamin Franklin. The Industrial Revolution began in Britain and not, say, in France, because it had far more men who thought that way and acted on it. Men like Josiah Wedgwood, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, who made china sets for queens and then made the very same thing (without the patterns) for the British midde-class.

These men did not go to Oxford and Cambridge. Partly because most of them could not: they did not belong to the Church of England. But also because the kind of men that Oxford and Cambridge produced did not think like that and would have never made an Industrial Revolution.

But the Industrial Revolution was more than just a certain way of thinking or even a bag of inventions, as important as they were. There were also changes in how people worked. For example, before 1760 craftsmen worked at home in villages at their own pace; after 1820 the common practice was to bring workers into a factory to make things there, working with machines.

It also led to a new view of nature that the Romantic poets wrote about. Wordsworth put it this way in 1798 in “Tintern Abbey”:

For nature then…
To me was all in all – I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion

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The following is based on part five of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). It is about the rise of mathematics.

Mathematics is not the mere use of numbers, it is to reason about them.

With the Greeks, that begins with Pythagoras, born about -580.  He said that numbers are the language of nature. He showed that in two ways:

  1. He showed how music that sounds good is music that is played on strings that come in particular lengths – those that are whole numbers.
  2. In about -550 he took the mathematical discoveries of the Egyptians and Babylonians, which to them were just discoveries, and showed how they followed from the nature of simpler elements – the first known mathematical proofs. It showed how number is bound up with the nature of the world, how it is the secret language of nature.

Proofs in geometry reached their height 300 years later in Alexandria when Euclid wrote down all the main ones in a book, The Elements. It is one of the most copied and translated books in all history.

Greeks applied geometry to the stars, to the motion of the sun and the planets. In 150, Ptolemy wrote down that beautiful model of the heavens, of circles within circles,  in a book, which stood for over a thousand years. It came to the West from the Greeks not through the Romans, who cared little for mathematics and science, but through the Arabs.

The Arabs also brought to the West the astrolabe (pictured at the top of the post). It is an instrument that measures the height of a star or the sun that is laid over a star map. With it you can work out your latitude, sunrise, sunset, time for prayer and the direction of Mecca. It was a Greek invention that the Arabs made much more usable.

But more important than Ptolemy or the astrolabe were Arabic numbers, which by adding the number zero (an Arab word), made numbers far simpler to use than the old Roman (or even Greek) sort would allow. The Arabs brought the zero from India in 750, but it took another 500 years to catch on in the West.

Muhammad did not alow his followers to paint the human form, so Arab art becomes a wonderful play of forms. It was math as art. Bronowski shows us the beautiful palace of Alhambra as an example.

One thing the Greeks got completely wrong was how objects are seen in space: perspective. It was Alhazen, one of the great Arab minds, who got it right. That was in the 1000s. In the West Italian painters took to it first in the 1400s. It is what makes the Renaissance paintings so different than what came before.

But even with Alhazen something was still missing from the Greek and Arab picture of the world: time. That was added by the West in the 1600s with the work of Kepler, Newton and Leibniz.

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“The Harvest of Seasons”,  part two of Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man” (1973), covers the rise of civilization from agriculture.

For 2 million years man wandered the face of the earth. With fire and stone tools he had some control over the physical world. With the agricultural revolution he learns to control the biological world: how to plant grain, like wheat and maize, and to keep animals, like goats and sheep. With that came a social revolution: villages, towns and cities sprang up.

Civilization can never grow up on the move. A good example is the Bakhtiari in Iran. Every year they must cross six mountain ranges with their sheep and goats to get to the summer grasslands and then come all the way back to get to the autumn ones. The worst part is not the mountains but the Bazuft, a wild and deadly river they must cross. Those who are too old to cross starve to death at the river’s edge.

Because the Bakhtiari are always on the move they have little: they must be able to pack and carry everything they own every day. So everything they have is simple and lightweight. Their life is so hard there is little time for invention, even for a new song. Every son becomes like his father, every daughter like her mother. every day is like the day before.

With planting man could grow more food than he needs. He could live in one place and build a house and have a home. His wanderings were over. He could own way more things. He had time for new songs, for creating new things. Even the simplest village has all sorts of little inventions that we do not even think about: needles, pots, nails, screws, string, knots, hooks, buttons, shoes, etc.

One of the oldest cities in the world is Jericho of the Bible. By -6ooo it had 3,000 people. Joshua would not arrive for another 4,600 years. It was made possible by two things: wheat and water.

The wheat that we know, the wheat we make bread out of, did not grow anywhere in the world in -80oo. It came about by a true fairy tale of genetics: first Emmer wheat came from crossing two wild grasses. That crossed again with yet another wild grass and then mutated to give us bread wheat. Like maize, it needs man to plant and care for it.

Some dates:

  • -8000: Emmer wheat, sheep, goats
  • -7000:
  • -6000: towns: Jericho has 3,000 people
  • -5000: pots
  • -4000:
  • -3000: wheel, horse
  • -2000: men riding horses
  • -1000: the time of King David

The horse was faster and stronger than any animal man knew how to control. The best horsemen were herdsmen, like the Scythians and the Mongols. They did not respect civilization. From time to time they would come out of the grasslands in the middle of Eurasia, destroying all before them. They were an empty whirlwind: they had nothing of their own to give. The future of man did not lay with them.

– Abagond, 2009.

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“The Ascent of Man” (1973) was a BBC series, Jacob Bronowski’s take on the history of science and invention. I saw it in the 1980s on the cable channel of the City College of New York. I would love to see it again. In the meantime I will have to make do with the book, which I picked up the other day for two dollars at a used book sale. I will do a chapter a week:

Man is part animal, part angel. To call him just an animal or just an ape would be a misleading understatement. Unlike other animals, man has an imagination. He can imagine the future and create it:

Every animal leaves traces of what it was; man alone leaves traces of what he created.

The gazelles for all their beauty and grace can never leave the grasslands of Africa. Should the grasslands ever disappear one day, they will disappear along with it. They are custom-made for a particular place. Man is not. Man got his start in those very same grasslands but has spread across the world, even to the cold and ice of the far north.

Among the multitude of animals which scamper, fly, burrow and swim around us, man is the only one who is not locked into his environment. His imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and toughness, make it possible for him not to accept the environment but to change it.

Men in the far north have white skin, not black. But it was not white skin that allowed them to live there: it was fire. Man has spread over the earth too quickly for difference of race to matter much. Even more to the point, man is able to make up for his physical shortcomings faster than nature can. Instead of growing fur like a bear, for example, he makes clothes.

In fact, while man has changed faster than almost any other animal over the past two million years, the physical changes in his body were driven mainly by changes in his brain. For example, as he was able to make tools to kill and cut, his teeth got smaller.

Some milestones:

  • 2,000,000 years ago: Australopithecus africanus. He could walk upright. That freed his hands to make and use tools, which in turn allowed him to eat meat. Eating meat meant less time spent eating and more time for other things. They took care of not just their own children but even those whose parents had died. He stood 1.2 metres tall (four feet) and had a brain about half the size of ours.
  • 400,000 years ago: Homo erectus: discovers how to make and control fire. He probably had language too, which allowed for better hunting. Spreads as far as China, Europe and Java.
  • 180,000 year ago: Homo sapiens: way better tools, like harpoons. Art for the first time.

Only man creates art. It shows that man can imagine things that he does not see before him; it means he can think about the future.

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