Ancient Greeks Even Smarter Than Previously Thought

John Noble Wilford writes in the N.Y. Times about a strange contraption found in a shipwreck off the coast of Greece. It was discovered 100 years ago, and was known as “the world’s first computer,” but recent high-tech analyses have shown that the contraption was even more sophisticated than researchers first realized. The instrument, with gears and dials made of bronze, was apparently designed to calculate and plot out astronomical information, “particularly phases of the Moon and planetary motions.” It is thought to have been designed by the Greek astronomer Hipparchos. “Technology historians,” Wilford writes, “say the instrument is technically more complex than any known for at least a millennium afterward.”

Which leads to an obvious question: so why didn’t the technology move forward for an entire millennium? (If anyone out there has a good answer, please let us know.)

I found myself thinking a very similar question the other day, when I was in Chicago and visited the Field Museum. I went for the King Tut exhibit, which was okay, but found myself more interested in the exhibit on Gregor Mendel. You remember Mendel, from biology class — the friar/scientist whose study of pea plants in the 1850’s helped bring about our modern understanding of genetics.

Here’s what surprised me the most. In a timeline chronicling the human understanding of genetics, the first note was about the Greek philosopher Hippocrates, who proposed “that tiny particles from every part of the body of each parent became blended, producing an individual with the characteristics of both.” That sounds pretty modern, doesn’t it? But then, the timeline noted, “Aristotle dismisses Hippocrates’ theory, noting that children do not always resemble parents, and that people who have lost limbs through accidents produce ‘whole’ children.”

As with Hipparchos’s ancient “computer,” Hippocrates’s genetic theory was apparently just too far ahead of its time. Even by the time Mendel got to work on his peas, the world wasn’t quite ready. His research sat dormant for years, and wasn’t embraced until well after his death.


I am some what surprised at your observation that good technology some how does not get adopted by others. There are hundreds of good ideas as well as works of brilliance (e.g. art) that do not get recognized/adopted every year. I feel it's a part of human nature that we continually emphasis what is important to us right-now rather than think of the future.

A fantastic example, and unfortunately I am too lazy to look up the numbers is comparing the dollars spent on pet food in the US each year versus the dollars spent on AIDS research. Ironically, I myself have recently been thinking about getting a dog and have not thought twice about the additional expenses. In comparison, even though my roommate is actively working in AIDs research, I have yet to fund any AIDs research directly, other than the occasional 6-pack of beer or pizza that my roommate consumes without replacing!

If I am not mistaken, isn't this the very problem expressed in your book regarding drug dealers? The reason why they persist is that some poor sucker thinks that cash is king, not realizing the chances of success are miniscule. Humans by nature over emphasize their immediate need despite what the future might hold.

I just hope that as Economic-thinking becomes more wide spread this trend can be reversed.



Since this is an economics blog, the answer to:

"why didn't the technology move forward for an entire millennium?" there wasn't any money in it.


Given that they found the computer in a shipwreck, the ancient Greeks were even more advanced than has been observed: Not only did they have the first computer, they had the first computer crash.


Blending inheritance, the idea that parental traits are more or less averaged, was actually a popular theory among 19th century biologists. Darwin, for instance, used it as his working hypotheses. It causes some problems, which is why when Mendel's work was rediscovered it was so quickly integrated into biology. I don't think Mendel's work was ignored so much because people weren't ready as because no one read it. He published it in an obscure place. Darwin, an example again, had a copy but we can be sure he never read it because he never cut the pages in order to open the volume.


Also, it sounds like Aristotle was dismissing the inheritance of acquired characteristics (now sometimes called "Lamarckianism"), which contemporary biology generally rejects but which was also popular in the 19th century. Perhaps Hippocrates tied this idea to blending inheritance? It sounds to me like he was ahead of his time, but his time was 150 years ago, not now.


the greeks were not the only ones who had technology that dated back millenia.the indians and the chinese had reached breakthroughs in tandem with the greeks - if not before...

basically - all the tech is washed away not due to lack of interest - but due to change in rule....
am i right folks???


The layman view is that inherited traits cannot be passed down, but there are subtle cases where it can be. For example if the acquired trait is a change in the genetic material (ie. a mutation). But still, no one says Lamarck was right all along.

So it's not sufficient to say Hippocrates was right, or Aristotle was wrong, neither view (as it's presented above) is able to fully explain all observations.


There's a tidbit I've heard several times, that there was not a sufficient amount of variation in Mendel's results, suggesting that he influenced the data.


I suspect the answer may have to do with the fact that the Greeks never developed an equivalent to the scientific method. They advanced mathematics because that is essentially a philosophical pursuit, but as for scientific claims, they were wrong about far more than they were right about. The trouble is that without a hypothesis-test-revision cycle they were never really able to distinguish good 'science' from bad. Thus, they were limited in how far they could advance technology, and so their work wasn't widely appreciated or used.

Unlike modern science, developed during the renaissance, Greek natural philosophy did not provide utility. Given that, it's not hard to see why it didn't progress during subsequent generations.


If I remember correctly, Guns, Germs, and Steel has a big fat chapter on inventions. There are a lot of things that can go wrong with even the most brilliant of inventions (domestic, imported, etc.). The Chinese invented the printing press-- then they invented moveable type-- but of course moveable type in Chinese is useless, and that invention went nowhere. Guns in Japan fell into disuse because of pressure from the samurai class, which had a lot invested in the superiority of the sword.

Hipparchos' computer was great, but there were probably less expensive, accessible ways of calculating moon phases-- just like carving out entire pages to print was more practical for the Chinese than making thousands of movable type.

Incidentally, a lot of ancient Greek philosophers' conjectures sound very modern. However, their theories have no basis. I suppose if you have enough conjectures like "everything is made of water" "everything is made of particular 'stuffs'", you'll eventually get something really far out like "everything is made of atoms". And it'll just happen to be true. (Somewhat. Since atoms are pretty different from what Democritus thought they were like.)


Lars Plougmann

Civilisations don't last forever. After the Greeks and the Romans, scientific progress and the advance of civilisation continued in the Middle East and Asia ultimately to "hand over" to the renaissance. A Europe-centric view of history tends to leave out the history of science from 600 to 1500 and instead focus on the vikings and armed struggle in Europe.


There are a lot of inventions that occur before their time. They often don't have the infrastructure support to make them feasible (Net2Phone v. Skype/Vonage of today) and they may not have been cost effective at the time (farming machines in the 3rd world).


The technology didn't move forward because of the burn of the Alexandria Library and the control of the Roman empire over all matters physical and heavenly. It is well known, now, that the Greeks have measured the diameter of the earth to within 1%. They have also discovered differentiation and integration (although, admittedly, they never tied them to one another). We know this now from extant manuscripts.


“why didn't the technology move forward for an entire millennium?”

The Catholic Church, perhaps? These were the Dark Ages for a reason. Scientific knowledge could have led to contradictions between the Bible and reality, and we couldn't have that, could we? Europe of this time was probably mankind's best shot at scientific research, since they had food surpluses and thus had extra resources to devote to research. Unfortunately, they were also strongly influenced by an entity that didn't want this research done.


What if our global history chronology was incorrect?

Check out this paper on historical dating:

(There are other similar proofs using astronomy and other such on

I came across this paper while doing my undergrad. It suggests that our generally accepted historical timeline contains repeated segments that artificially inflate our global chronology.

The premise is that during the so called dark ages one empire would conquer another and then rewrite the history books to inflate the strength of this new empire. History is written by those who who control the power. Then, during the renaissance, when a global chronology was being formed, these 'rewrites' were butted up against each other to create an extended timeline.

So what if this theory is correct? It would mean that this is more like the year 1306 CE not 2006! The gap in technological advancement would virtually disappear!

Of course these ideas are often met with a lot of resistance because it means changing a lot of our generally accepted models of recent human development. (Not to mention all the school history books that would need republishing)

Anyway, it is an interesting thought to entertain.


Eric J

Even if Hipparchos wrote in a manuscript the instructions and creation for use of such a device, how many copies of the manuscript would be made? A few hundred?

Now how many people in the Greek world had the skill to make such intricate devices? A dozen in a generation? (Remember we're talking about minuscule populations compared to modern nations.) And their active career would have been much shorter than that of a modern watchmaker; no glasses to compensate for failing eyesight.

So you had to have the manuscript coincide with someone with the skills to create the device, probably backed by a wealthy patron with an interest in astronomy beyond that of a merchant sailor, who likely had less expensive and delicate ways to perform the calculations involved.

Then once the Library at Alexandria burned, the manuscript was lost.


There is another problem with transfer and adoption of technology: it was often kept secret and/or controlled due to war value or rule value or temple value (e.g. chemical batteries). It also does not help that the precision needed to make it work was not common. We do not know if the one found actually worked.


One theory is that the Roman empire and later on the catholic church really basically suffocated progress for a few hundred years. And not only technical.

And interesting read can be found in a book by Terry Jones:


I'm surprised no one has mentioned Nickolai Tesla yet. Researchers today are still trying to duplicate his studies and his theories.

Here's an article about wireless power. Things like computers and robots and toasters that don't have to be plugged in.

I imagine it won't be the last time we'll hear a researcher remark, "well, I was reading about this old inventor, Tesla, and I thought 'Hey, this work well with today's ______ technology'"


Tesla is underrated. It's very sad.