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Why did the Classical World Never Develop a Machine-Based Society?
by Michael Bard
Michael Bard -- all rights reserved

With all of the achievements that the classical world made, it comes as a surprise to many that they never achieved an industrial revolution and, subsequently, a machine-based society such as our culture has achieved. As one begins to examine this question, it soon becomes clear that there are many reasons why this achievement never occurred. The main reasons will be discussed in this essay.

To discuss the lack of an achievement of a machine-based society by the classical world, it is first necessary to define what is meant by the term 'machine-based'. For the purposes of this discussion, the definition is as follows: a machine-based society is a society, the majority of whose power is created by, and used by, mechanical devices. Our western culture fits within this definition as most of the power used is created by machines (generators of various types), and most of the power used is used by various machines (such as all electrical devices). With this definition in mind, one can now begin to figure out why the classical world did not achieve this type of society. The simplest method is to compare the conditions during the classical period with those that existed when our culture began to develop its machine base. This method will be used in the discussion of the various reasons for this non-mechanization of the classical world.

The first reason commonly put forward to explain this can be termed as either superstitious or religious. In other words, the forces of nature are the domain of supernatural powers, and thus the harnessing of these powers is blasphemous. At first glance this argument seems quite plausible, but under closer examination this reason becomes unlikely. Most people agree with this, among those agreeing being Sir Desmond Lee who states that there could hardly be, "...any obstacle to the development of science or technology in ancient religion..."(1). Additional support for this position is evidence by Hanns Sachs who states that the, "Dread of Nature, and fear of its exploration, which had such a strong deterrent effect n the Middle Ages, [could] not have been the case; such dread was unknown in antiquity..."(2). This statement also gives the main reason against religion having an effect, that reason being the fact that if the organized Roman Catholic charge of the middle ages and the Renaissance could not halt the beginning of a machine-based society, then how could the comparatively unorganized classical religious institutions be expected to do so? As stated by Sir Desmond Lee: "...there was no effective Church until well into the Christian Era..."(3). For this reason, it is highly unlikely that the superstitious or religious reasons were a major cause in preventing the creation of a classical machine-based culture.

Another commonly suggested reason is the widespread use of slavery in the classical world, compared to the limited use of slavery during the early period of our culture. There are many arguments in support of this position. As described by Sir Desmond Lee they are: since, "...much manual labour is done by slaves, it came to be regarded as low or servile..."(4) and thus the educated scientists would not 'dirty their hands' and crate machines to aid in manual labour, and, "Why worry to invent,..., when there were plenty of slaves to do the job?"(5). Again, at first glance, these reasons seem to strongly support the case of slavery as a major preventative force, but stronger support can be given against it. One reason, as described by Sir Desmond Lee, states that not even "in the accient world itself was technological innovation unknown in two spheres notorious for the employment of slaves in quantity, mining and the large agricultural estate."(6). Even where there were many slaves employed, some mechanical development did take place. In fact, it is even true that in the, "...time of the Ceasars...slave labour was becoming scarcer and more expensive whiles consumption needs increased rather than decreased..."(7). Even when the absence of slaves increased the need for mechanical aid to maintain the level of production, still no thought of seeking such mechanical aid ever occurred. For these reason, the presence of slavery is unlikely to have been a factor in the prevention of a classical machine-based society.

The final common held, and false, reason is the division between ancient science and technology. This is also false as during the industrial revolution there was, "...nothing that called be called science [there], nor was there in many other of the technological advances..."(8). The development of such machines as the steam engine took place without the aid of scientists, thus proving that the division between ancient science and technology could not be a reason for the lack of development of machines as the mechanization of our culture began without scientific aid. It is only when one looks past these reasons, that the more important reasons for the non-development of machinery become apparent. Markers Note: "I don't have adequate info to counter this, but I think, at first glance, that I'd want to dispute it.

The first of these important reasons is the poor transportation technology available to the classical world. Because then, "...high proportion of broken terrain to be found in most parts of the Mediterranean region lengthens the odds against any type of wheeled vehicle..."(9) and since, "...the pack-animal makes fewer demands on limited resources than a good draught-animal"(10), the majority of land travel was achieved by walking with and, if needed, a led pack-animal. Only in the later Roman Empire did wheeled transport come into widespread use on the excellently built Roman Roads as the, "...shafted cart was unknown in Rome until the third century A.D."(11). Even after this time heavy transport was difficult because of the, "...traction difficulties, including slipping, with heavy loads on stone-paved sections of road; use of steep gradients without either efficient bits to control the animals or adequate braking to hold heavily loaded vehicles. In addition [there were] neither "dished" wheels (to cope with the cambered sections of road) nor pivoted front axles (for turning corners) nor ball or roller bearings..."(12). Mounted travel was virtually unknown as, "...the horse, to the mass of the unskilled, [was not] much of an animal for riding; for the stirrup was unknown in the classical world..."(13). Thus land travel was slow and difficult. Even sea travel had its problems as, "...the ancient sailing ships could not make progress without the aid of following winds..."(14). Thus any method of transporting cargo was slow and undependable. For this reason there was no impetus to develop large industry as it was too expensive and too slow to transport goods. Thus only small factories which produced sufficient material for all who were within cheap shipping range, which found it simpler and cheaper to buy a few slaves or hire a few workers, rather than investing in mechanization, existed. Thus there was no private encouragement for the development of machines until the late middle ages when improved sailing technology, and the further development of land transport, allowed affordable shipping for low-cost manufactured items. Until this occurred, there was no reason for private technological development by the classical peoples.

However, upon closer examination, the entire fact of the lack of dependable transportation ability stems from the lack of advanced methods of transportation such as improved sailing technology. The classical world also lacked advanced harnesses as, "...if the load [was] heavy, some interference with the breathing due to pressure on the windpipe..."(15) would be experienced by horses as the harness used choked the animal when it tired to exert its full strength when pulling heavy loads. In fact, "...instead of pulling 15 times the load a man could move, the horse in antiquity barely pulled four times the amount..."(16). Thus the technology available in the ancient world was poor and prevented heavy transport, thus acting against he large scale development of industry. Only after this technology was improved during the middle ages could the development of a mechanized culture begin.

Another major reason for this non-development is the lack of metallurgy, materials and tools possessed by the classical society. The classical world lacked suitable metals for mechanization as, "...neither in quantity nor in quality was the iron available in classical antiquity suitable for the construction of power-driven machines..."(17). In fact, even when, "...Ctesibius tried to make a torsion catapult with metal springs...Inadequate metallurgical knowledge and lack of precision tools rendered [this invention] ineffective."(18). Only when the use of water-driven bellows and the use of coal for fuel began in England, did the mechanization of our culture begin. The classical world, even if it knew how, could not build the tools that it needed to mechanize itself.

Even if the classical world was given the tools and the knowledge that it needed to mechanize itself, it could not maintain that mechanization. The only lubricants known in the classical world were organic fats and greases which were used as axlegrease on carts. The, "...fact that Latin has a technical term for axlegrease (axungia) provides in itself sufficient evidence of its use for lubricating axles."(19). Organic lubricants are inadequate to prevent friction between two metal surfaces and thus they could not be used to maintain metal machines. It wasn't until the discovery of the use of oil distillations as non-organic lubricants that large metal machines could be made workable in Renaissance Europe.

Additionally, the lack of metallurgical capability and the lack of useful metal/metal lubricants stems from the location of the major classical civilizations round the Mediterranean. This area lacks the needed coals and oils for the development of advanced machinery. Thus, a prime reason that mechanical development could not occur in classical times is the location of the major classical civilizations. Only when the centres of civilizations moved into northwester Europe were the materials available to feed large scale mechanical development.

A final prime preventative cause is the cultural attitude of the classical societies. As stated by Hanns Sachs, "The ancient world overlooked the invention of machines not through stupidity nor through superficiality. It turned them into playthings in order to avoid repugnance."(20). Thus, the other prime preventative cause is an instinctive and unconscious repression of the inventive urge by classical society. This reason is also given by Hanns Sachs as he states: "...the repression of the inventive urge which tended towards the discovery of such machines, or their economic use, and its direction into other channels and towards other aims - arose instinctively, or, more precisely, from unconscious motives..."(21). Thus, the classical world did not develop a machine-based society as it did not desire to develop mechanical devices. Because of this the creative energies of the classical world were turned away from mechanical devices. This concentration of intellectual ability resulted in the 'Greek miracle' and its explosion of scientific and mathematical inquiry. Only after European intellectual desires turned towards mechanical development did our machine-based society began to develop; only after western society had developed sufficient mechanical ability did a comparable amount of intellectual inquiry follow up the Green scientific and mathematical achievements. [Markers Note: "Sach's argument appears heavily psychological. Do we buy it?"]

Thus, as can be seen from the discussion above, there are many reasons why the classical world did not develop into a machine based culture such as ours. The commonly held beliefs that this was because of either superstitious/religious reasons, the presence of slavery, or the division between classical science and technology, are false. The lack of transportation technology to provide the impetus for large industrial development due to the lack of distant trade and the lack of efficient horse harnesses, stems from the technological lacks of the classical world. This could have been solved by sufficient technological development. However, there are two unsolvable reasons why the classical world could not develop a machine-based society. Firstly, its geographical location and lack of needed materials; second the intellectual desire not to develop machinery. These are the prime reasons why the classical society could never develop a machine-based culture.

Marker's Final Notes: "I am happy with this argument (geographical location and lack of needed materials) which could have been developed further, I think. This one (intellectual desire not to develop machinery) I am not so sure about. Whether there was really a lack of "intellectual desire...to develop machinery" or even a real wish NOT to do so would require very careful investigation. Probably VERY hard to demonstration convincingly... A competent essay in general."

(1) Sir Desmond Lee, "Science, Philosophy and Technology in the Greco-Roman World: I," Greece and Rome, 1 (1973), p. 69.

(2) Hanns Sachs, "The Delay of the Machine Age," Arion, 4 (1965), p. 498.

(3) Lee, "Science, Philosophy and Technology in the Greco-Roman World: I," p. 70.

(4) Lee, "Science, Philosophy and Technology in the Greco-Roman World: I," p. 70.

(5) Lee, "Science, Philosophy and Technology in the Greco-Roman World: I," p. 70.

(6) Lee, "Science, Philosophy and Technology in the Greco-Roman World: I," p. 71.

(7) Sachs, "The Delay of the Machine Age," p. 498-499.

(8) Lee, "Science, Philosophy and Technology in the Greco-Roman World: I," p. 78.

(9) K.D. White, Greek and Roman Technology (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1984), p. 128.

(10) White, p. 128.

(11) Lee, "Science, Philosophy and Technology in the Greco-Roman World: I," p. 74.

(12) White, p. 140.

(13) Lee, "Science, Philosophy and Technology in the Greco-Roman World: I," p. 79.

(14) White, p. 143.

(15) White, p. 138.

(16) R.J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1965), II, p. 85.

(17) Lee, "Science, Philosophy and Technology in the Greco-Roman World: I," p. 76.

(18) M.I. Finley, "Technological Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World, " The Economic History Review, (2nd Series) 18(1) (1965), p. 35.

(19) White, P. 137.

(20) Sachs, p. 503.

(21) Sachs, p. 504.

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