Landels, J.G.: Engineering in the Ancient World

J.G. Landels’ Engineering in the Ancient World is one of the best insomnia cures I’ve found, and I mean that in a good way. Usually when I’m stressed out, my brain gets on a hamster-wheel of anxiety and refuses to get off; but it turns out that when I’ve spent fifteen minutes trying to comprehend a single pump diagram, my brain has jumped off the wheel for long enough for fatigue to catch up.

This is an accessible look at what’s known and guessed about engineering in Ancient Greek and Roman times. It’s divided into the following topics:

  1. Power and Energy Sources
  2. Water Supplies and Engineering
  3. Water Pumps
  4. Cranes and Hoists
  5. Catapults
  6. Ships and Sea Transport
  7. Land Transport
  8. The Progress of Theoretical Knowledge
  9. The Principal Greek and Roman Writers on Technological Subjects
  10. Appendix: The Reconstruction of a Trireme
  11. Some Further Thoughts

Personally, I would have liked a bit more civil engineering, though perhaps the roads and buildings aren’t as interesting as I think.

The treatment of these topics is really quite clear; yes, I spent a succession of nights on a single pump or catapult, but that just means that I’m not a good visualizer and have no engineering background. I eventually understood everything except a single pump, which was presented as a variant on other pumps and thus not explained much (it’s page 82, figure 25, “Pump found on Roman merchant ship,” if anyone has the book). I realized partway through that I was subconsciously approaching the book as “okay, if I’m ever pulled into a fantasy world of lower tech level and/or forced to survive in the wilderness, here’s what I’ll have to do,” and so I’d recommend it to writers who are writing about analogous time periods. =>

There are three aspects of Landels’ style that I didn’t like, though they appear relatively infrequently. First, he occasionally drops into dialect, as in this discussion of a screw pump:

Vitruvius recommends that the rotor should slope upwards at an angle of about 37°. Though this is arrived at from the well-known construction of a right-angled triangle with its sides in the ratio 5:4:3, it probably represents an approximation to an optimum angle which has been arrived at empirically. (“Us put ‘un up like this-yur, an’ ‘ee wurked allright; us put ‘un higher an’ ‘ee didden work so gude, so us put ‘un back where ‘ee be, an’ let ‘un bide”.)

Second, he occasionally employs a particularly wordy passive voice, such as in a late footnote: “The attempt to identify [Vitruvius] with Mamurra, Caeser’s engineer officer, is not to be regarded as successful.” I think this is related to the third thing I don’t like: he has a tendency to say that something is “clear” or “obvious,” especially when contradicting someone else. In most writing, words like that are red flags, signs that the writer is handwaving past an important logical connection. I don’t know, maybe it is clear or obvious if you have the illustrations, original texts, and translations, but it makes me twitch when Landels just asserts that it’s so.

This is the second edition of the book, with some sketchy annotations of the changes in the field between 1978 and 2000 in the “Some Further Thoughts” chapter. I could wish for a more detailed discussion of some of the developments, but I suppose one can’t have everything. On the whole this was very good, and I recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the topic.

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