Today I received a blog from the science-fiction blog io9, and they examined the life and career of one Hero of Alexandria . Now, you’ve probably never heard of him, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great inventor. A listing of his inventions demonstrates just how impressive he was as an inventor: the first known steam engine, called an aeolipile, robots, binary code, the basic version of Fermat’s principle, Hero’s principle, imaginary numbers, a force pump for firefighting, the first vending machine.
Think about that for a minute. Around the time of Christ this Alexandrian scientist invented machinery that we still use today, in addition to being a playwright and dabbling in advanced theoretical mathematics. Such an achievement deserves to be remembered. Now, his religious beliefs were certainly pagan, and his “mystery plays” do not merit revival, but his scientific inventions were certainly worthy of a great deal more development then they received.
The really interesting question to ask, though, is why these inventions were not further developed. While the purposes and uses of a steam engine appear obvious to us as labor saving devices that allow for industrial development, let us remember that even as recent as the 1860’s, not all cultures even in the Western world were enthusiastic about industrial development. Science and technology do not exist in a vacuum, and not all societies are fond of developing technologies simply because they exist, but can have cultural reasons to reject even those technologies they know to be useful .
The primary reason why many of the inventions Hero came up with were not developed further was because of the institution of slavery. In a day and age where labor was plentiful and cheap, and where it was not only easy, whether through the purchase of kidnapped people for slaves or prisoners of one the innumerable wars of the time, but also prestigious to “own” other people, there was no need or desire for labor-saving technologies. Who needs a steam railroad when one has enough slaves to carry a litter, making a show of one’s wealth and glory in the process. Who needs a robotic dumbwaiter when one has slave attendants.
Not only must there be a technological need for one’s inventions (and few existed in the time of Hero, though they were not entirely absent), but inventions must also fit the political and cultural environment of the time. Hero’s inventing genius remains nearly forgotten because it cut against the grain of the time, by proposing mechanical solutions to problems that were solved by cheap and disrespected human labor.
Even in the 19th century, when there was a vastly greater impetus to replace slave labor with machines, there were still notable backwards cultures (like the Antebellum South) that rejected industrial development precisely because it threatened their debased culture based on the glory and prestige that resulted from owning other human beings and forcing one’s will upon them. The human pride in domination over other people, one of the most wicked drives present within humanity, was sufficient in that debased culture to reject a widespread adoption of industrial methods even in a time when to do so was common.
That is not to say that industrial culture completely eliminated the human drive to dominate others–witness the exploitation of women and immigrant laborers in building railroads and in running mills in the United States of the mid-19th century, or the steel mills of Pittsburgh and Birmingham. No, the underlying drive for exploitation did not diminish with industrialization, but it changed its form, and at least in principle made nature and the physical environment what was to be exploited fundamentally, rather than one’s fellow man. This slight advancement in human civilization, hard-earned over thousands of years of gloomy history, was itself too much of a step to make for either the Hellenistic Age of the Mediterranean or the Antebellum South. They would not give up their slaves, not willingly at any rate.
Therefore, when we examine inventors like Hero of Alexandria, we cannot simply expect that inventions are like the “Field of Dreams” and say to ourselves, “if we build it, they will come.” Rather, we must realize that our creations exist within a cultural mindset, and that which is contrary to the spirit of the times will not be readily adopted, no matter how true or useful or beneficial it may be. Human beings, by and large, are not focused on progressive development of capabilities, but are deeply concerned to conserve even the most wicked and depraved elements of their culture and lifestyle–like the exploitation of their fellow human beings for their own ambitions and glory. Therefore, those inventions that reduce the scope for such exploitation, or render it superfluous and “unnecessary,” will face an uphill battle. Such is as true now as it was during the time of Hero of Alexandria.