Things the Romans could have invented but did not and why

tomar

Ad Honoris
Jan 2011
13,323
#1
This is a thread about what the Romans (up to the 4th century AD) could conceivably have invented (not talking about the computer or the laser here) and used on a large scale ... but did not.... And why they did not

The first thing that comes to mind for most is steam power but it has been discussed on this thread

http://historum.com/general-history...ilized-greater-extent-early-modern-era-3.html

What about the windmill ? Why did the windmill not see widespread use in Roman times ? What about the longbow ? Gunpowder ?

In general what was the Roman attitude to what we call today "R&D" ?

What other things come to mind ?
 
Jan 2015
2,902
MD, USA
#2
This is a thread about what the Romans (up to the 4th century AD) could conceivably have invented (not talking about the computer or the laser here) and used on a large scale ... but did not.... And why they did not

The first thing that comes to mind for most is steam power but it has been discussed on this thread

http://historum.com/general-history...ilized-greater-extent-early-modern-era-3.html

What about the windmill ? Why did the windmill not see widespread use in Roman times ? What about the longbow ? Gunpowder ?

In general what was the Roman attitude to what we call today "R&D" ?

What other things come to mind ?
Hoo, well, that's kind of a toughie! As was pointed out in the other thread, many inventions involve the correlation of a number of ideas, techniques, materials, needs, infrastructure, etc. Even something as simple as the "longbow", as we commonly call it, was more of a cultural phenomenon than any sort of technological leap. There were plenty of wood self-bows all over Europe in Roman times, there just wasn't a society that required every man capable of drawing one to practice with it every week, and to muster with it and several dozen arrows.

Not sure what to tell you about windmills! I don't know when they show up or become widespread. There is some evidence for Roman-era water mills, though. But it was more convenient for the Romans just to stick a treadmill wheel wherever they needed it and have a couple slaves power it. Such a heavy reliance on slavery is always suggested as a reason for the perceived lack of Roman technological innovation, though I'm sure it's not a perfect argument!

Because for one thing, there *were* some interesting innovations. The Antikythera device springs to mind as an actual computer. It may have been water-powered, and probably served as a public automated calendar, in a town square. And it's not likely to have been entirely unique, though of course it was hardly a household implement!

There were also things like reaping machines, pushed by a horse at the rear and having a toothed blade and a collecting hopper at the front. Odometer carts were apparently used for placing milestones on Roman roads accurately.

Plus we know the Romans were masters of surveying, laying out straight roads between towns that were hundreds of miles apart, with all manner of hills, forests, and other obstacles in between. We're still arguing about how they did things like that! Of course the Romans and Greeks had a lot of complex mathematics, geometry, astronomy, etc., so there was the start of a good foundation for more advances.

Part of the whole "Why not?" question may just be looking at things the wrong way. We're used to rapid changes in technology, and always demand and expect more more more, faster bigger smaller faster better, etc. Ancient people simply didn't think that way and had no reason to. They were often very resistant to change, and someone with a wild new idea might even be run out of town or burned as a witch. These are people who look to the PAST for guidance and "the proper way" to do something, not the future. The success of the past was the standard of measure and judgement for the present and future.

Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of steam-powered triremes, too! But from the Greek invention of atomic theory to using tactical nukes on Arminius is more than just a step...

Matthew
 
#3
That's a bad question. Technological progress in the pre scientific revolution world was very slow and progressive. So a lot of the things that came after the Roman Empire could, in theory, have been created in it. Gunpowder is a good example, the pointed arch another. And so on.

That is true for Rome and for virtually all other civilizations.
 
Jun 2012
5,705
Texas
#4
Not sure what to tell you about windmills! I don't know when they show up or become widespread. There is some evidence for Roman-era water mills, though. But it was more convenient for the Romans just to stick a treadmill wheel wherever they needed it and have a couple slaves power it. Such a heavy reliance on slavery is always suggested as a reason for the perceived lack of Roman technological innovation, though I'm sure it's not a perfect argument!
Romans were absolute masters of water and water mills. Additionally, as shown in the destroyed ranges in Spain and other locations, Romans used water as a destructive mining force. They used water in place of dynamite.

However, many forms of technology are actually labor saving devices. As noted, the extremely high level of slavery was such that this technology did not have a high demand, or your economy was basically a highly developed robber baron form of "stealing other people's gold." Indeed much of the impertus for higher wages, rights and the industrial revolution occurred after the labor shortages following the many plagues in Europe.
 
Oct 2012
8,545
#5
Number theory and, well, much of theoretical mathematics.

It always baffled me that Euclid essentially invented Mathematics by creating an axiomatic system for planar geometry, but there were no further advancements in theoretical mathematics until the 17th century and we didn't really see a return to the rigour of Euclid until Euler in the 18th century.

The Romans knew how to count and had arithmetic, they had an example, par excellence, of the axiomatic treatment of Mathematics in Euclid, but they never developed Number Theory. I know the Greeks and Romans alike had a hard time separating mathematics from the physical world and when they did they tended to go in the direction of metaphysics rather than modern mathematics. But, still, you'd have thought it would have clicked for someone and somebody would have decided to give arithmetic the same treatment Euclid gave to geometry.
 
Oct 2009
3,523
San Diego
#7
The Roman's primary limitation in technological advance was their limited capability with mathematics.

Roman numerals do not lend themselves to arithmetic operations. ( try doing long division with them and see )
Romans also lacked the concept of Zero, which is crucial to understanding and creating higher maths.


So the Romans were able to do anything that could be calculated on an abacus. Even things as seemingly astonishing as gear trains and the antikythera mechanism are well within the realm of solving by means of an abacus.

However… such things as quantifying or manipulating numbers as would be required in Optics was beyond them… and with optics beyond their capability, that means the Romans had no chance of deriving Perspective geometry.

Chemistry, the laws of motion, and other things that were quickly solved once arabic notation and Zero were embraced by the west are also things that were impossible to achieve for a culture that lacked higher maths ( and, it should be noted, every other great civilization prior to Rome faced the exact same limitation to their technological advance. And they All fell into entropic decay once they had maximized their limited capacities… just as did Rome )


As to Steam. Steam seems simple… the Greeks made little whirligigs that seemed to be "steam powered" but that understanding is simply ignorant.
Using escaping steam as a form of "jet power" is NOT how steam engines work.
And even the early "steam engines" of the industrial age did not actually produce very much power in comparison to their cost and SLOOOW speed.

The reason is that "steam" is compressible. And because of that it actually exerts very little force on a cylinder.

What made the modern "steam engine" was the accidental realization that spraying a little cold water into a cylinder full of steam caused the steam to immediately collapse… and the VACUUM that this reaction created in the cylinder has a thousand times more force than the steam can possibly exert. ( really… its Vacuum that drives a steam engines cylinder… not the pressure of steam )

But to discover this, you need to have not only sophisticated metallurgical skills, you also have to understand just what a vacuum is, and how to calculate the force of the vacuum on the materials of the engine so that you can design an engine that can withstand those forces… and, that means you need to be able to measure and quantify such parameters as ductility, tensile strength, elasticity, as well as be able to measure and control very high temperatures with precision to produce materials with reliable properties… and that means you need to have thermometers, and the maths to calculate altitudes, air pressure, and more.

So, again, every single requisite discovery leading from Roman technology, to more modern technologies always comes down to the need to be able to do higher maths.

The Romans, for example, routinely created vacuums whenever they tried to pump water out of mines in stages longer than 30 feet.

But they had no idea they were creating vacuums. They had no idea WHY the water would not go higher in a pipe than 30 feet no matter how hard you tried to pump it. They just understood they had to break pumping systems down to 30 foot lengths. And then pump again from there.

They could not understand the vacuum because they lacked the maths to record and quantify and correlate the physical world around them in such a way as to build a cohesive scientific picture of the laws of nature. They had no basis on which to form a theory that might lead them to the insights for greater technological changes.

And the reason you can absolutely KNOW that MATH was the bottleneck, was the fact that every major civilization prior to ROme, climbed to almost exactly the same height of technology and architectural capability… only to crumble and fall for lack of technological growth…

And the ONE big difference between the western culture that followed Rome, and earlier cultures, was that they acquired arabic notation and the concept of Zero right around the mid 1400s, from the Arab culture that was, at that time, the scientific apex of human development. ( shortly before islam became radicalized to End free inquiry entirely )

Europe prior to the renaisence had climbed back up to the same level Rome once held- able to build whatever the Romans had built.
And then, suddenly, the discovery of better maths, the sciences of optics and chemistry, revolutionized the world and in short order, perspective geometry, natural sciences, the study of gravity, and all the other foundations of modern technology were discovered in a period of just a couple hundred years.

Its ALL maths.

With the exception of a handful of inventions that other peoples came up with by pure serendipity. ( like gunpowder - which the chinese did not Set Out to invent, but accidentally invented while trying to figure out a recipe for immortality --- Ironic, eh? )

Knowing how to Make gunpowder turns out to be not even remotely as powerful as knowing WHY gunpowder explodes.

The former is a just a recipe you follow without understanding. it offers you nothing but the gunpowder.

The latter offers you the capability of creating countless other chemicals, with countless other applications, because you have a Theory of chemistry you can employ to make a multitude of compounds.
 
Last edited:

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
7,095
#8
I disagree that it was all math that was the difference, and already during the high middle ages, in some areas Euope has surpssed Rome in some areas.

Europe developed reading glasses, something the Romans never did. While the Romans had clear glass, I am not sure they had the ability to make crystal clear glass, glass of sufficient clarity to make reading glasses, It is no coincidence that the Venetians were noted for their ability to make crystal, glass so clear that it matched natural crystal, and they also were part of the creation of reading glasses, they are related. While you can make reading glasses of natural crystal lenses, it would be much much more expensive to do so, making reading glasses impractically expensive.

The powerful medieval mechanically winched crossbow was more advance and sphisticated than Roman hand held bows.

Medieval Europe also created and utilized the horizontal axis windmill, again something the Romans never created.

Tne firsr threaded fastener, i.e. screw, first appeared in late medieval plate armor.

The medieval counterweight trebuchet was a more powerful siege engine than any the Romans had, and were capable of throwwinf projectiles heavier than the largest Roman ballistas.

The gimbal mounted European magnetic compasses was another medieval invention that the Romans did not have.

Same for the all mechanical clock, another medieval Euorpean invention the Romans didn't have.

None of the inventions seemed rely on mathematical skills, and while you may argue some belong to the Renaissance, others are clearly medieval inventions before the Renaissance.
 

tomar

Ad Honoris
Jan 2011
13,323
#9
However, many forms of technology are actually labor saving devices. As noted, the extremely high level of slavery was such that this technology did not have a high demand, or your economy was basically a highly developed robber baron form of "stealing other people's gold." Indeed much of the impertus for higher wages, rights and the industrial revolution occurred after the labor shortages following the many plagues in Europe.
This is a theory (or rather an assumption) that has never really been proven

I submit to you that even slaves have a cost (they need to be fed, housed and guarded)....Remember that modern technology initially replaced..... horses more than humans (horsepower anyone?)... Also there is always a need for more power than humans can provide so theoritically there is always a need for machines... And the Roman had both slaves and primitive machines, the 2 are not incompatible...
 

Similar History Discussions