Triumph of the Innovation Economy – Part 3

by Rowan Gibson

What does a mysterious discovery in a sunken wreck off the Greek island of Antikythera tell us about the innovation power of classical antiquity? Could it be the world’s oldest “computer”? If so, what else were the Greeks and Romans capable of?

Human Creativity and the History of the World

PART 3

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series of articles, I argued that innovation is – and always has been – the fundamental driver of human progress. To anyone who believes that innovation is merely a management fad or a business buzzword, my message is this: take a good look back through history.

What you will very quickly conclude is that the entire history of the world is a history of creativity, invention, and innovation.

I invite you to join me on my continuing journey through time as I trace the history of innovation across the ages. In Parts 1 and 2, we examined the formidable innovation power of Earth’s earliest cultures and civilizations – the Natufians, the Ubaidians, the Sumerians, and the ancient Egyptians. In this next article in the series, we will look at how innovation shaped other great Western empires of ancient times.

The early world powers

As history moved on, it is reasonable to argue that all significant social, technological and economic progress over the longer term was ultimately driven by the human capacity for invention and innovation.

Egypt’s mighty empire was eventually followed by the Assyrian world power, a civilization that is known to have invented such things as paved roads, masonry dams, a postal or courier service, and sophisticated medicines including even anti-depressants. One of their great mathematical inventions was the division of the circle into 360 degrees. They also developed the concept of longitude and latitude for geographical navigation. But it was Assyria’s technological and military innovations that made their armies almost invincible. They created iron swords, lances, metal armor, battering rams, and a cavalry, innovating around the art of warfare itself. As they sacked foreign cities and looted from other countries, they also brought back inventions from neighboring lands – particularly in the fields of agriculture and engineering – and adapted these ideas to their own needs.

From the southern Mesopotamian part of Assyria’s kingdom another great economic and military power emerged which over time was to play the dominant role in the region – this became the empire of ancient Babylon. Building on the innovations of various civilizations that preceded them, the Babylonians were responsible for huge advances in many fields such as engineering and architecture (remember the Hanging Gardens of Babylon?), as well as law, art, medicine, and in particular mathematics and astronomy (which began as a study of astrology). They also gave us the world’s first sundials.

The Persian Empire that followed was likewise known for many important innovations and inventions that made a contribution to human progress. It was the Persians who introduced the whole notion of equal rights, they invented giant stadiums, popular sports like polo and wrestling, carpet manufacturing, underground water distribution systems (qanats), caesarian operations for delivering babies, insurance, and many other advances. One of these was the “Royal Road” of the Persian Empire, which ran 1, 775 miles (2,857 km) from the city of Susa to the port of Smyrna (modern İzmir in Turkey) on the Aegean Sea. It featured postal stations and mounted relays at regular intervals, enabling the Persians to send courier messages rapidly along the entire length of the road. This Royal Road was further linked to other routes leading on to India and Central Asia, making it a precursor to the famous Silk Road – the trade route that came to connect China and India to the Mediterranean region.

Innovation in classical antiquity

The classical Western civilizations of antiquity – Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman – produced notable advances in the public sector such as alphabetization, coinage, concrete roads, bridges, civic water supply, pumps and water-lifting devices, indoor plumbing, drainage, sewage and garbage disposal, central heating, and fire protection, not to mention their renowned achievements in other important spheres like art, literature, philosophy, architecture, science, mathematics, and medicine.

It was Archimedes and some later Greek philosophers (along with the great Hellenistic engineer Hero of Alexandria) who defined the classical concept of the “simple machine,” eventually describing the function and fabrication of several basic mechanisms, including the lever, the pulley, the screw, the wedge, the windlass, and the inclined plane. A good example of the practical application of one of these mechanisms is the Archimedes screw for lifting water (which was commonly used for irrigation purposes, or for draining water out of mines). The Greeks also came to recognize the principles of motion transmission, including the role of the ratchet, the cam and the gear.

Some early pioneers made imaginative use of this knowledge. For example, in the first century A.D., Hero of Alexandria invented a working steam engine called the aeolipile (around two thousand years before the Industrial Revolution), the world’s first wind-powered machine (an organ operated by a wind wheel), a force pump (which was widely used by the Romans for irrigation, fire-fighting, mine drainage and removing bilge water from ships), the world’s first coin-operated vending machine (for dispensing holy water in temples), a syringe device for delivering liquids or air, and various “special effects” mechanisms for the Greek theater, among other contraptions.

His fellow countryman Ctesibius, who lived over three hundred years earlier, is credited with inventing metal springs made of bronze, early siphons, one of the first force pumps, a hydraulic-powered organ called the hydraulis, and a water clock that was only surpassed in accuracy some 1,800 years later by the pendulum clock of Christiaan Huygens.

No wonder Ctesibius has sometimes been called “the Edison of Alexandria.”

The oldest “computer” in the world

An even more astonishing example of classical ingenuity is what is known as the Antikythera mechanism, which was discovered over one hundred years ago on a sunken wreck off the Greek island of Antikythera. It was considered merely an interesting, if somewhat mysterious, artifact for around 70 years until scientists began to use modern technology to unlock its mysteries. Now, thanks to 2D and 3D x-rays, along with surface imaging and computerized tomography, we know that the device is actually the world’s oldest “computer”, built over two thousand years ago in the first or second century B.C. Originally housed in a wooden box, this unbelievably sophisticated clockwork mechanism was an assembly of at least 30 meshed cogs and gears made of bronze. It was designed to simulate the cycles of the sun, moon and planets in our solar system, and predict lunar eclipses several decades in advance. Nothing even remotely resembling the complexity of this device was seen again until the 14th century in Western Europe.

According to British physicist Derek Price, who built a reconstruction of the mechanism, “men who could have built this could have built almost any mechanical device they wanted to.”

Where productivity went wrong

What is puzzling is the fact that, given the remarkable potential of some of these inventions and technologies, the classical world in general failed to leverage them effectively to generate economic value. There was apparently no lack of brilliant ideas. What was lacking was the interest in developing these ideas into widely used techniques for improving productivity. It seems that these societies simply valued other things, such as art, literature, philosophy, civic administration, law, trade, political organization, and of course military power, more than agricultural and industrial “production”, which was anyway considered to be a lower-class, plebeian activity.

The fact is that, back then, the vast majority of manual work on farms, in mines and quarries, and on construction sites, as well as the work of numerous domestic occupations, was performed by slaves (at times representing up to 40% of the population), so why would anyone have the need for labor-saving mechanical technology?

Ideas that had impact

Nevertheless, there were several important mechanical or technical breakthroughs from this period. For example, the Greeks designed the first wooden wine presses, utilizing large horizontal beams, capstans and windlasses to exert pressure on the grape pomace. In the 2nd century A.D., the Romans introduced the screw press, in which the windlass was replaced with a vertical screw, and a heavy stone weight was attached to the beam. By turning the screw, the workers could steadily increase the downward pressure exerted by the stone on the grapes inside the vat, gradually forcing the juice through a hole or a spout at the bottom. This mechanized wine-pressing equipment became the predecessor to the basket press used in the Middle Ages.

Similarly, the Greeks invented cranes, first using a winch and pulley hoist and later a compound pulley to lift heavy loads, and the Romans perfected this idea with their treadwheel crane, which could lift around 6000 kg. Later they developed wooden lifting towers (with human and animal-powered capstans on the ground) which could lift up to 100 tons.

One of the well-known inventions of the Roman Empire was the waterwheel. Its earliest incarnation was the Noria – basically a wheel with buckets attached to it that was operated by the current of the river – which became the world’s first automatic water lifting device. Later, the Romans used waterwheels for flour milling, by integrating gears that would transit water-power to drive large grindstones.

Another great Roman discovery was concrete (which they called opus caementicium) made with hydraulic cement. The invention of this innovative building technology ushered in what is known as the Roman Architectural Revolution, or the Concrete Revolution, opening up a whole range of exciting new design and construction possibilities. The Romans used concrete not just to make roads, but also to build monumental bridges, aqueducts, dams, domes, amphitheaters, circuses, government buildings, baths, temples and harbors, without the previous restrictions of traditional stone and brick building materials. Some of these colossal structures, such as the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, or the Pont du Gard aqueduct in southern France, still stand testimony to the masterful architectural engineering which this new technology made possible.

Unfortunately, when the Roman Empire collapsed the technical knowledge of how to make concrete disappeared with it, and was only re-discovered in the 18th century by British engineers. Today, concrete is the most widely used man-made material in the world.

When you pick up a book today, you may want to remember that it was the Romans who first replaced clay tablets and scrolls with the concept the bound book, or codex. The first codices were made by binding wax tablets together, but these were later superseded by better versions using animal skin parchment as “pages.” Some of the first to adopt this new technology were the early Christians, who used it extensively to produce copies of the Bible.

Then there is what we today would call the first newspaper. In 59 B.C., as means of informing the public about current and upcoming events across the empire, Julius Caesar ordered the creation of the Acta Diurna, or “daily acts,” which contained news on Roman military victories, important happenings in the social or political scene, lists of circuses, games and gladiatorial bouts, notices of births and deaths, and even human interest stories. These “newspapers” were written on metal or stone and then posted in public areas like the Roman Forum.

At times, the Romans also learned from the mechanical inventiveness of the peoples they considered barbarian. For example, the Gauls and the Celtic people came up with several innovations which were later adopted and used by the empire, including wooden barrels for watertight storage and transport, the enameling process, spoked wheels, the first reaping and harvesting machine (called a vallus), superior implements for agriculture, as well as better iron working techniques.

Let’s put all of this in perspective. In 500 BC, Rome was nothing but a minor city-state on the Italian peninsula. By 100 AD, at the height of its power, the vast Roman Empire encompassed nearly 1.7 million square miles (2.7 million square km), stretching from Britain in the Northwest, and modern-day France and Spain in the West, to the North African coast in the South, and Egypt in the Southeast. To get some idea of the scale of this empire, the Roman provinces of Britain and Egypt were about as far apart as the North American states of Washington on the West coast and Florida on the East coast of the United States.

The Romans produced a rich legacy of innovations and inventions that changed the world of classical antiquity and that helped to build one of the mightiest empires of all time. But what happened to innovation and human progress when that empire fell more than 1,500 years ago? Would human creativity continue to push civilization forward, even in Western Europe’s difficult “Middle Ages?” Or would other societies – such as the Islamic world or the Chinese – begin to achieve technological and economic supremacy? Find out in the next article in this series.

Continued in Parts 4 – 7 of this series– find series here

© Rowan Gibson 2015. All rights reserved.

image credits: wiki.en.grepolis.com; en.wikipedia.org; en.wikipedia.org; en.wikipedia.org by tony freeth; historum.com; wikimedia.org by zarateman; editoriallapaz.org

Rowan Gibson’s brand new book The Four lenses of Innovation examines the thinking patterns or perspectives that have been catalysts for breakthrough innovation throughout human history, and shows you how to use these perspectives to infuse creativity into your own organization. Order your copy right here:


Rowan Gibson (rg@rowangibson.com) is recognized as one of the world’s foremost thought leaders on innovation. He is the internationally bestselling author of 3 major books, an award-winning keynote speaker in 60 countries, and a cofounder of Innovation Excellence. His new book is The Four lenses of Innovation. On Twitter he is @RowanGibson.