Today, I learn an unexpected lesson from a dating
game. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Let's play a game with
history and technology. First, I'll use my computer
to generate a random date between 1 AD and 1950 AD.
Just a minute. There! The computer gave me 584. So
today we'll ask what was going on in the year 584
Boy! Is that ever a lousy date! The Roman empire
was coming apart. Christianity was mired in
politics. China had been through 400 years of civil
war. It would settle down again, but in the next
century. The Prophet Mohammed was just 14. His
followers would build a great civilization, but not
for a while.
Right now we hovered between the old world and the
The center of civilization was the city of
Byzantium -- today's Istanbul, Turkey. Byzantium
had built a great wall against the West. It gazed
East across the Bosporus. Thus armored, it was
becoming a static, closed world. Yet that's the
best place to look for inventive energy in 584 AD.
The great architect/inventor of that age was
Anthemius of Tralles. He had died half a century
earlier. His finest work was the cathedral of Hagia
Sofia, or Holy Wisdom. He finished it in 527, but
an earthquake soon damaged it. The rebuilt
cathedral -- the one standing today -- was finished
If you've ever been in Hagia Sofia, you've been hit
by an overwhelming sense of interior space. The
partial domes rise one upon another. They carry a
huge final dome at the top. Hagia Sofia ended an
architectural era. It took the Roman arch to its
limits, and the result is stunning. No one outdid
it until Europe began making Gothic cathedrals 500
Anthemius himself was wildly ingenious. He was a
mathematician. He wrote a book on parabolic
mirrors. One story tells of a quarrel between
Anthemius and a neighbor named Zeno. Anthemius
finally decided to teach the fellow a lesson. He
created a steam-powered artificial earthquake under
the man's house.
But Anthemius had been dead for half a century in
584 AD. The only Byzantine invention we remember
after his death was Greek Fire. It was a sort of
napalm-like goo that the Byzantines flung at their
So our random date is interesting -- not for what
it was, but for what it wasn't. It was a gap in
human energy. It was a hiatus in the forward march.
This random date -- this date I never would've
chosen -- is a grim reminder. We, too, can lose our
verve -- our mental fight -- our forward motion.
And if we do, nothing remains but to wait for
someone else to pick up the thread of civilization.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
This was a completely legitimate experiment. I really
did generate the date randomly. I really was
horrified by what I got. I really did learn from the
I used a conventional encyclopedia for most of my
information. The steam-powered earthquake story
White, L., Medieval Technology and Social
Change. New York: Oxford University Press,
1966, pp. 89-90.
You may also be interested in a detailed historical
time-line that I used:
Chronicle of the World. (J. Bourne and
J. Bourne, eds.) Ecam Publications, 1989.
Hagia Sofia (incorrectly called St. Sofia)
Cathedral, later converted to a Mosque, as
represented in the 1911 Encyclopaedia
Hagia Sofia shown as a mosque in the 1855
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Episode | Search Episodes |