Today, 2800 years ago. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run and about the people whose ingenuity created them.
This is the 2800th episode of this program.
So what can we make of that number? Well, let's suppose we'd been doing
only one episode a year. At that rate, we'd have to've begun back in 788 BC.
So what was world like back then?
The Assyrian Empire was approaching the height of its power. Its King, Adad-nirari III,
was probably the same King of Ninevah whom the Biblical Jonah called to repentance.
And Assyria was on its way to dominating the entire Middle East including Egypt.
The world west of the Assyrian Empire was just emerging from a 400-year Dark Age
after the fall of the Mycenaeans. The kingdom states of classical Greece were just
forming. Athens's Golden Age still lay three centuries in the future. But harbingers
were there. The first Olympic Games would be played just twelve years after our 788 BC date.
China, then a much smaller country, was three centuries into its 800-year Zhou Dynasty.
The Dynasty had just begun to fragment and lose centralized political power.
But, though it was splintering, the dynasty was coming into a time of artistic,
philosophical, and technological advances.
The changes in both Greece and China seem to've been interwoven with iron. Iron had
come to Greece a few centuries before 788. It was the most obvious new technology
of her dark age. China was just about to take up iron. Before that, the Zhous had
been doing some of the finest bronze work ever known.
And what of Rome? Rome would lag far behind Greece. Romulus, Rome's legendary founder,
and his brother Remus were born just 17 years after our date. But the Etruscans would
rise and fall on the northwest Italian coast long before Rome became significant.
The world was in flux in 788 BC. Was it because of new technologies? Well yes.
I've mentioned the coming of iron, but far more important in the west was the
invention of alphabetic writing.
The Minoans, Phoenicians, and others had just streamlined the old pictographic writing
into very small sets of symbols. Now we'd no longer need vast arrays of symbols for
words. Writing would be done with a small number of building blocks -- first syllables,
then just phonemes ... Scholars are now converging on the notion that alphabetic writing
led to wholly new thought processes -- that we, in the west, literally became a changed people.
Now, 2800 years later, the entire world is beset by another revolution in thinking.
This one has begun during the actual span of this radio series -- a mere 25 years, at this
Of course our electronic media radically speed information flow. But, below the surface,
our minds are relating to that information in wholly new ways. The result now, as it was
2800 years ago, is so much larger than it first seems. Once again, for better and for worse,
our human species is undergoing alteration.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.
here I make indirect reference to Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the
Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. (New York: Houghton Mifflin 1990). Jaynes argued
that the appearance of alphabetic writing resulted in huge changes in the way humans thought.
Much controversy has followed his ideas. However that controversy has done more to modify
than to scuttle his arguments. This site
summarizes some of the criticism.
The web site of the Julian Jaynes Society
represents Jaynes views as they stand today.
For other matters in this episode, see the Wikipedia entries on
Etruscan Civilization, and so forth.
This episode was first aired on June 1, 2012
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.