Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2800: 2800 YEARS AGO

by John H. Lienhard

Today, 2800 years ago. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run and about the people whose ingenuity created them.

This is the 2800th episode of this program. So what can we make of that number? Well, let's suppose we'd been doing only one episode a year. At that rate, we'd have to've begun back in 788 BC. So what was world like back then?

The Assyrian Empire was approaching the height of its power. Its King, Adad-nirari III, was probably the same King of Ninevah whom the Biblical Jonah called to repentance. And Assyria was on its way to dominating the entire Middle East including Egypt.

The world west of the Assyrian Empire was just emerging from a 400-year Dark Age after the fall of the Mycenaeans. The kingdom states of classical Greece were just forming. Athens's Golden Age still lay three centuries in the future. But harbingers were there. The first Olympic Games would be played just twelve years after our 788 BC date.

China, then a much smaller country, was three centuries into its 800-year Zhou Dynasty. The Dynasty had just begun to fragment and lose centralized political power. But, though it was splintering, the dynasty was coming into a time of artistic, philosophical, and technological advances.

The changes in both Greece and China seem to've been interwoven with iron. Iron had come to Greece a few centuries before 788. It was the most obvious new technology of her dark age. China was just about to take up iron. Before that, the Zhous had been doing some of the finest bronze work ever known.

And what of Rome? Rome would lag far behind Greece. Romulus, Rome's legendary founder, and his brother Remus were born just 17 years after our date. But the Etruscans would rise and fall on the northwest Italian coast long before Rome became significant.

The world was in flux in 788 BC. Was it because of new technologies? Well yes. I've mentioned the coming of iron, but far more important in the west was the invention of alphabetic writing.

The Minoans, Phoenicians, and others had just streamlined the old pictographic writing into very small sets of symbols. Now we'd no longer need vast arrays of symbols for words. Writing would be done with a small number of building blocks -- first syllables, then just phonemes ... Scholars are now converging on the notion that alphabetic writing led to wholly new thought processes -- that we, in the west, literally became a changed people.

Linear B
A sample of Linear B, one of the oldest known alphabetic forms of writing. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.)

Now, 2800 years later, the entire world is beset by another revolution in thinking. This one has begun during the actual span of this radio series -- a mere 25 years, at this writing.

Of course our electronic media radically speed information flow. But, below the surface, our minds are relating to that information in wholly new ways. The result now, as it was 2800 years ago, is so much larger than it first seems. Once again, for better and for worse, our human species is undergoing alteration.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


here I make indirect reference to Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. (New York: Houghton Mifflin 1990). Jaynes argued that the appearance of alphabetic writing resulted in huge changes in the way humans thought. Much controversy has followed his ideas. However that controversy has done more to modify than to scuttle his arguments. This site summarizes some of the criticism. The web site of the Julian Jaynes Society represents Jaynes views as they stand today.

For other matters in this episode, see the Wikipedia entries on Assyria, Mycenaean Greece, Zhou Dynasty, Ancient Rome, Etruscan Civilization, and so forth.

This episode was first aired on June 1, 2012



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.