Today, we learn that to hold knowledge, we must
also add to it. 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 years just before
Christ was born, the chief engineer of the
Roman world was a man named Marcus Vitruvius Pollio.
Vitruvius began as an architect and engineer under Julius
Caesar. Later he took charge of Octavian's siege engines.
And, toward the end his life, he wrote a ten-volume
account of known technology under Octavian's patronage.
Here we see how much more than a mere armorer he
was. But we also see the weakness of Roman
technology. Vitruvius's scope is astonishing.
Historians call him the great Roman architect. Most
of his books do deal with buildings. But look more
He talks about city planning, building materials,
and acoustics. He has a lot to say about
timekeeping. He explains water clocks and sundials.
He describes all kinds of pumps. Before he's done,
he's written about astronomy, medicine, music, the
arts -- even contract law.
We have problems with Vitruvius, though. His books
came down through medieval copyists. Medieval
engineers saw them as a living handbook, not
documents to be preserved. We have to separate his
work from the stuff people added to it.
Yet Vitruvius himself was looking back. He was
conservative. He was an historian as much as an
engineer. His books look longingly to a time before
They look back to classical Greece. They also
celebrate the high tide of invention in Alexandria.
Vitruvius remembers the post-classical world that
sprang up after Alexander the Great. For a while,
after 300 BC, North Africa teemed with
free-wheeling invention in both arts and machinery.
Vitruvius quotes the Egyptian engineer Ctsebios. He
devotes two pages to Ctsebios's water organ. It's
fun, but I wouldn't try to build anything from his
Still, Vitruvius loves these older
machines. He has little to say about his own
specialty -- about modern Roman war engines. He only
mentions them at the end of Book Ten.
Close to these openings are bronze dolphins .
from which hang cymbal-shaped valves.
Vitruvius had an encyclopaedic grasp of known
technologies. But he didn't add much to that
knowledge. Rome didn't add much to what a freer
people had created.
In the end Rome gave way to new cultures that had
the same inventive spirit she'd forgotten. In the
end, Vitruvius's virtuoso books remind us that it's
not enough to own knowledge. We have to continually
create it, as well.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Ward-Perkins, J., Price, D. deS., Toomer, G.J.,
Authors of the three parts of Vitruvius Pollio.
Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Vol.
15, Supplement (C.C. Gilespie, ed.) Chas. Scribner's
Sons, 1970-1980, pp. 514-521.
Vitruvius, P., The Ten Books on
Architecture. (M.H. Morgan, translator) New
York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1960.
Vitruvius, M.P., Zehn Bücher über
Architektur. (Jakob Prestel, translator)
Baden-Baden: Verlag Heitz GMBH, 1959.
Vitruvius, On Architecture. Vol. I and
II, (Frank Granger, translator) Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1955.
An excellent complete translation of Vitruvius Ten
Books is given on-line by Bill Thayer at: