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Technological progress

December 18th, 2004 | 2 min read

By Keith E. Buhler

I am someone who grew up inculcated with the belief that mankind, as a whole, is always progressing forward. I was never preached Darwinian evolution but I somehow came out of Junior High with other forms of evolutionary or progressive opinions, such as the opinion that mankind was getting more and more sinful since the dawn of time, that mankind was getting less and less "religious", that mankind was becoming more and more technologically advanced.

The first two of those beliefs have, in the last four years of instruction and personal re-evaluation, been dispelled from my mind as false. I now think more that the sinfulness of man does fluctuate over the course of history, but the pattern is circular rather than unilateral. After all, in the second generation of humans there was a murderer... and similarly about the "religiousity" (though I think the meaning of this word dangerously ambiguous; I use it here for the sake of expediency). The last belief, however, remained --I had no direct reason to deny it -- though not without a bit of discomfort on my part. After the fate of the other progressive sentiments, I've been suspicious...

Despite suspicicion, I am still convinced that the collective creative output of humankind, that is, culture, has in fact been getting better, getting more complex and interesting in important ways, since the dawn of time.

Suspicion makes me curious, and curiosity lead me to an article which I would like to share. It is about a certain piece of ancient technology, and, along with stonehenge, another piece of evidence to the contrary of my current belief.

It's called the Antikythera Mechanism. It is an astronomical calculating device about 32x16x10 centimeters. It is composed of 32 gears, the collective working of which is a miniature model of the movement of the sun and moon with reference to the fixed stars. It accounts for the phases of the moon. It's very complex, and very useful if you are an astronomer-type person. In 1900 a ship found pieces of one off the coast of Antikythera, which is in Greek waters. It has been dated, supposedly with surety, to 80 B.C. The second most recent versions of this device we have are from 1000 A.D.

The information above I got from a SUNY Math department website, who themselves reference a scholar named Derek de Solla Price.

Look for yourself at the photo. Could this have been made by a civilization fresh out of the Bronze Age? Ehh, something doesn't jive. In order to resolve the discord, I am reading up on this device and re-evaluating what is perhaps just another form of "chronological snobbery." We will see.