August 25, 2005

Book review: The Ancient Engineers

This morning on BART I finished the geekiest book I've read lately, which is a treatise on the history of engineering written in 1960 by a strange and opinionated man named L. Sprague de Camp. It's one of the four books that I picked up from the anthropology section at Powell's in Portland, the other three being one seminal ethnography, one seminal archaeological treatise (sorry, I like the word treatise), and a new dramatic history of the translation of the Rosetta Stone.

The Ancient Engineers is 400 pages on the gradual development of the optimal arrangement of oars in a trireme, the responses of castle builders to gunpowder and clockmakers to gears, and why exactly London Bridge was falling down. It's a little like what you'd get if you stood over James Burke with a calendar and a whip and told him to tell you everything he knows without skipping more than two centuries at a time on any given subject.

It's both appallingly technical and short on technical details. I really should have been reading it with an encyclopedia in my other hand, since the definitions of basic engineering concepts were kind of spotty. It was assumed that I knew what a corbelled dome was, but the working parts of catapults and water clocks were thoroughly defined. Then again, with the exception of the corbelled dome, the things that were skipped were either picked up two chapters later and better explained, or used in a context where it wasn't strictly necessary to understand them completely.

All told it was an extremely interesting read. I'll admit that I'm terrible at finishing anything that's not fiction (and some things that are) without getting bogged down and bored 5/6 of the way through. I hardly finished an assigned text in four years of college, but I finished this. More, it was easy to pick up again each time without losing the thread of what was being discussed, even though I was only reading about 15 pages at a time on BART. It's reader-friendly and interspersed with enough non-technical history to give some reference points by which to navigate. It also covers enough of a range of engineering that if, for instance, you're hopelessly bored by siege engines you needn't tune out the entire Hellenistic chapter because you can still read about roads and plumbing.

It's got one major failing which becomes clear only in the second-to-last chapter, and that is a profound cultural chauvinism. De Camp actually spends several paragraphs explaining why the Chinese language is ridiculously limited and entirely unsuitable for scientific thought. He sneeringly remarks that a Turkish invasion of India ends any interest the reader might have in that particular subcontinent more or less forever after. The final chapter, on medieval Europe, begins by explaining that while the entire East was lost in contemplating its own mystical navels, the vigorous West was pursuing useful technological advances. Essentially, if you wanted to know anything about the history of engineering east of Constantinople, you'd need a separate book because the mention given to any Asian invention in this one consists of a few grudging sentences followed by an enthusiastic digression into what exciting things the West did with the technology once it heard about it.

With that important caveat, it's still an excellent book. At the very least, it's an excellent read, which I recognize is not the same thing. It's well researched and probably factually correct, but not necessarily a good, sober unbiased history if that's what you're looking for. On the other hand, who looks for a sober unbiased history to read for fun? Just keep the date of publication (1960) in mind and read the bloody thing.

Posted by dianna at August 25, 2005 10:27 AM

L. Sprague DeCamp.... That name sounds REALLY familiar. But I haven't done much with archeology. Did he work in any other fields?

Posted by: Zach S. at August 25, 2005 10:45 AM

Sorry to ask my question before I googled him. He's a science fiction author! I've actually read some of his short fiction!

Posted by: Zach S. at August 25, 2005 10:47 AM

That link to Burke's "K-Web" is, forsooth, thricely-awesome. I want that program so much it hurts.

Posted by: Jacob at August 25, 2005 11:21 AM

I thought you might. And, okay, I do too. Not so much it hurts, though.

Posted by: Dianna at August 25, 2005 11:33 AM