Today, we struggle to read what our ancestors are
saying to us. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
In the Odyssey,
Out in the middle of the wine-dark sea there is
a land called Crete, a rich and lovely land, washed
by the sea on every side; and in it are many
peoples and ninety cities. There, one language
mingles with another ... Among the cities is
Historian Andrew Robinson tells how, in 1900,
archeologist Arthur Evans dug up the old city of
Knossos. He found what might've been the palace of
King Minos. It had a labyrinth -- possibly the same
labyrinth where legend placed the fabled Minotaur.
Evans also found writings on clay tablets. They
included hieroglyphs and two forms of writing with
straight-line strokes. The hieroglyphs were
earliest. The first linear writing dated from 1800
BC. Evans called it Linear A. The other
straight-line writing, Linear B, had come into use
350 years later -- in 1450 BC. Linear A and B were
significantly different from one another.
Linear A had about 75 symbols. That was far too few
if each symbol stood for a word. And it was too
soon for alphabetic writing. This was what came in
between hieroglyphs and alphabets. This was the
first written language that used symbols for each
Evans had far more examples of Linear B, so that's
what he set out to decipher. He spent the next 40
years at it. These were syllables of an unknown
tongue -- nothing to compare them with. A
cryptographer trying to design an unbreakable code
could do no better than this. Evans was sure the
language was unlike Classical Greek. He called it
Minoan, after King Minos, but he couldn't translate
Then, in 1936, a schoolboy named Michael Ventris
went to an exhibit of Minoan artifacts that Evans
had mounted in London. Fourteen-year-old Ventris
edged up to 85-year-old Evans and asked, Did you
say [these tablets] haven't been deciphered,
Right there, Michael Ventris found his life's work.
He worked on the problem for the next seventeen
years. One clue lay in the old language of Cyprus.
It had a few symbols that looked like Linear B.
Evans had brushed that evidence off because old
Cypriot was too close to Greek. He'd convinced
everyone that Linear B was unrelated to Greek.
Then an American scholar, Alice Kober, saw
something very important in Linear B. Identical
groups of syllables often had different endings.
Bingo! That's how Greek inflections work. Evans had
been wrong. Linear B was closer to Greek than
Spurred by that lead, Ventris went at the language
with the systematic apparatus of a mathematical
code breaker. Then in 1953, Robinson tells us,
three things happened. The structure of DNA was
explained, Mount Everest was climbed -- and Ventris
broke the code.
Now that we can read those texts, we find no new
Homeric epics -- no more wine-dark seas washing the
land on every side. These are mostly business
accounts. And Ventris? Well, he died in a car wreck
three years later. And Linear A remains an unsolved
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds