Monday, January 14, 2013

Invention and Progress Interuptus

By Doug Vehle, The Daily Bosco

So as a kid I was amazed by the concept of the wheel being reinvented again and again during prehistory, as primitive groups who may or may not have qualified as civilizations died out and took their idea with them.

The idea took a darker turn for me when, still in grade school, I read a short story of an innovator who created wings and flew over the Great Wall of China in ancient times. Brought to the Emperor, he thought he would be hailed a hero, yet learned he was to be executed. Those in power only saw the worst in his invention. The worst being an empowerment of those other than themselves.

So is the premise to a legend attributed to the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Tiberius created great wealth in his time ruling Rome. Gold, silver, copper, piled in abundance in the government coffers, as well as the coffers of Tiberius. As a general he had conquered Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia and Germania. As an emperor with no major conflicts to fight and no major building projects, the treasury simply grew.

Generous he became in paying out to the claims of his people, for a time he was quite popular. And quite protective of the largesse. So much so he may well have deprived the world of a major technological innovation for 1,800 years.

But what in fact was offered to Tiberius? Three historical accounts offer only vague clues, the chroniclers of course would have no idea what they were witnessing, if in fact they were giving first person accounts. Perhaps a better understanding can be found in the identity of the creator of the goblet, or the plate, or whatever the object was that was presented to the Emperor. But that too is in question.

The object itself, as well as the potential material it was made from, varies with the vocation of the creator. In one account, an architect responsible for repairing the foundation of an important building is to be banished from Rome as Tiberius is fearful of the high regard this one could be held in, high regard to rival Tiberius' own. Indeed the name of he responsible was not recorded at the time.

This architect is then to have approached Tiberius with a glass goblet unlike any which could be created by the Roman glass blowers of the time. When the architect dropped the goblet it did not shatter, instead he picked it up and reshaped the bent gift to its' original form. Another account has a local artisan gaining an audience with the Emperor to show him such a goblet, which again strikes the floor only to bend instead of shattering and then be reshaped by the creator. A third refers to the mysterious developer as a metalsmith, who offers Tiberius a special shiny plate.

Showing off the item, he bends it then quickly hammers it back to the original shape. Always the story speaks to the unusual durability of the new item, as well as the pliancy. Such an inventor might have expected a great welcome from the leader of his people. But so often a leaders' vision sees no farther than the protection of his own power.

In the tale of the flying man in ancient China, the Emperor explains himself while waiting for the executioner to arrive to finish the job of suppressing the invention. He speaks of men with evil faces using these wings to fly over the great wall carrying large rocks to be dropped from above. No thought is given to the uses his own people could make of wings, or that perhaps his own army could fly carrying rocks in defense.

The Emperor merely expected the man about to be executed to see the wisdom of preventing the knowledge of his invention from spreading. Tiberius was of a similar mind. The fortune of Tiberius at the time of his death totaled nearly 3 billion sesterces. This will be in gold, silver and copper; hard to be certain but the buying power today could well equal the entire debt damage of an 8 year Obama presidency.

The accepted explanation for the decision to have the creator of this new material executed was that the Emperor feared for the value of his fortune: Might anyone care for the precious metals of the time when word of this new material spread? But what was this new material? By two accounts it was clear, the supposition then being that someone had discovered tempered glass, a process well within the reach of Roman technology.

The more compelling theory arises from the version of the metalsmith, who claimed to have extracted this new shiny metal from clay. 1,800 years later this would be a method for gathering aluminum, the most abundant metal in nature but only found dispersed. Imagine the forward leap in technology had aluminum been available sooner.

It seems foolish of Tiberius to have feared the offering of this new material which could have made him even richer. His fortune could have paid for workers to extract the metal from clay, as though diversifying his portfolio by converting gold and silver into aluminum. Production would have been far slower for lack of the technology that makes aluminum a cheap material today.

The Emperor then would have controlled the fascinating objects to be created in the same way DeBeers controls diamonds and their production. Instead he acted out the premise of killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. And if you doubt that the engineering genius of ancient times that the Romans possessed could really have produced aluminum at that time, consider that the clever but less technologically accomplished Jin Dynasty of China is known to have produced aluminum belt buckles just 200 years later, still 1,600 years before Hans Christian Oersted and Frederick Wohler began chemically separating pure aluminum.

Instead Tiberius fell out of favor and at his death the people called for his body to be thrown in the Tiber river, the custom for common criminals. His fortune he left to the empire, Caligua quickly squandered it. No legacy of note survived him. In the 19th century At that it was still considered rare enough that the most honored received gifts of aluminum instead of gold.

So what other great discoveries were lost due to jealousy? It is considered that, had Charles Babbage been a friendlier man, he could have gained the support he needed to build his 'Difference Engine,' of which he was able to create working portions but never the complete device capable of calculating values in series automatically. That and his planned Analytic Engine, which would have run with punch cards, would have been the first working computers more than 150 years before the IBM PC would reach the home user.

His son Henry Babbage built a scaled down working version of the Analytic Engine in 1888. In contemporary times two proof of concept Difference Engines were built, proving that Babbages machines would well have moved the world into the computer age far sooner. But we'll never know the lost influence of the mechanical computers of Babbage, the mystery material of Tiberius, or even the flying man of China if he existed. Or would any of that made a difference?

During the Civil War the Southern machinists were technologically inferior to the Northern machinists, yet they still possessed the tools and knowledge that went into the manufacture of some of the early machine guns which could have changed the outcome of the war had they realized they could build such a thing. The iron ships they built, unable to match the technology of those built by the North, may have served them better if built on wheels and transported over land, making it impossible for invading troops to cross their paths.

It wasn't some miracle material they needed, just better ideas in using the knowledge they already had. It's so hard to believe there are really people out there seeking to suppress the next big thing. Steal it, certainly, but why would they stop it? I always expect the result should be more as those witnessed by George Dantzig, the UCBerkely graduate student famous for "The Two Unsolvable Problems" presented to his statistics class which he misunderstood to be homework. Six months later, his instructor listed Dantzig as coauthor as he published one of the finished proofs Dantzig had turned in, as Dantzig still failed to understand the significance of his work in solving the problems.

Another mathematician would use the other proof shortly, Dantzig would receive full attribution for his work. It a perfect world it would always be that way. The best thing to remember about anything new is that technology succeeds when it either supports or is supported by existing technology.

The early railroad train was a marvel traveling crosscountry, but what of the difficulties of moving the individual cars about in the railyards? The expansion of the rails in the late 19th century was doing away with covering distances by horse therefore seeming to end the need for horses, but in the early 20th century there were more domesticated horses in England than ever before. Those horses were needed in the railyards to move the cars. And people still needed to travel to and from the railroad station.

Not so fast writing off the value of your gold, Tiberius. Not only has the abundance of aluminum failed to cancel the value of gold, even the discovery that mercury (Not lead) can be turned into gold thanks to nuclear power has stunted the rise in price of just an ounce.

Even if the gold in your teeth is completely artificial.

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