Plato said that necessity is the mother of invention and he seems to be correct. Over the last hundred years or so new inventions, machines, medicine, compounds like nylon and who knows what else have been invented and used, at a great pace. I have wondered why.
The Greeks and Roman’s at the height of their respective cultures and Empires produced a huge amount in learning and inventions. There is even some evidence that early batteries made enough electricity to allow makers of little gods to electoplate them in gold or silver.
Rome had access to all sorts of materials, including a range of metals and yet although they came up with some excellent engineering and of course the invention of concrete – there doesn’t seem to have been the huge invention process you might expect from a thriving and wealthy empire.
The same can be said of the Greeks. At the height of their learning and culture with such people as Galen, Socrates, Plato and the ever lovable Aristotle – still they seem pretty univentive compared to modern times.
Looking at the history of medicine or machines it seems there wasn’t that much to be said of the ancients, but there was an upsurge in both medicinal understanding and machine incention in the Middle Ages. Monateries led the way it seems. It was the Cistercians who invented the water wheel I believe and thus made milling so much easier, quicker and finer.
We know from archeology of monastic gardens that the Benedictines and others had a stunning understanding of how plants could be used for medicine. The pharmacy was increased with the pilgrims and their protecting crusaders who came armed with all sorts of spices and medicines fromt the Holy Land and beyond.
We know that thanks to the monateries of Britain Leprosy was eradicated here by the end of the middle ages (I believe it returned after the truly nasty Henry VIII closed all the schools and hospitals in his grabbing of monsatries and their lands).
While it is obvious that war and famine can hold back invention and progress, there had to be something underlying the lack of inventiveness for so many eras.
There are those who argue quite reasonably that much science was put on hold because pagan systems of belief did not accept order in creation or time. It was the Jews and Christians who saw creation as ordered by One God who was a reasonable God. Obviously pagans are not going to look for the laws of physics if they don’t see how they could exist. Even so people like Euclid (300BC ish) must have considered something approaching order for his works in maths and geomatry to have been so accurate.
So what was the real block to invention?
I can’t help thinking it was slavery. it wasn’t just Greek and Roman cultures and life sytles that were propped up by slavery. It was widespread through all cultures (and sadly still is too widespread). Slavery was built on the idea that some people were not worth much. Christian ideals of all people being made in the image of God and possessing dignity and a soul was only introduced with Christ. Before that, the strong could decide on the worth of the weak and slavery was rampent.
No one is going to invent cleaners to make slave life easier. No one invents a central heating system that works better than a hypocaust if it’s fine to have children crawling in the heat under the house; because they were only slaves after all.
In the end great empires always fell and I wonder if slavery and child sacrifice played a huge role in their fall – but it seems that countries that value (or valued) freedom and got rid of slavery then became inventive.
Britain has stopped inventing and making stuff over all and I know from those who work with the problem, that slavery in some pretty nasty forms is back with human trafficking (slave markets).
There’s an old saying “sin makes you stupid.” and slavery is surely a sin. Wish we were rid of it – but it’s alive and slimy even up the road from where I live.