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Roman Engineering

July 16, 2002

A public radio commentary

I learned yesterday that I'm a member of the world's oldest profession.

I read this in an article on "engineering" in the the Encyclopedia Britannica. Its main point is captured by this favorite quote of mine from a scientist. He said, "a good scientist is a person with original ideas. A good engineer is a person who makes a design that works with as few original ideas as possible." This is the essence of all good engineering today. In fact, this way of thinking is part of our western heritage.

We often hear of the western Canon in Literature, but we have another western heritage: engineering. When we trace our roots in literature we start with Homer's Iliad or Odyssey. But as an engineer I don't think of ancient Greece as a nation of poets, but as a nation of merchants who built wealth to hire engineers to build huge things.

We still see Greek architecture in our museums, banks and churches. But in many ways the engineering achievements of the Greeks pale when compared to the Romans, who were most proud of their work, especially the aqueducts. Here is the cry of the aqueducts Roman Administrator: "I ask you, just compare with the vast monuments of this vital aqueduct those useless pyramids, or the good-for-nothing tourists attractions of the Greeks!" Without realizing it, he was highlighting the great contribution of the Romans to engineering: They set the profession firmly on economic principles. And with this, they paved the way for our consumer culture.

Consider the aqueducts. The Roman people didn't really need them. For washing, drinking and irrigation they could get water from nearby. But the Roman people wanted huge baths: They were a way to escape the blazing Mediterranean summer, or get warm in winter - and a place to meet and converse. We'd compare the baths today to a coffee house or a sidewalk cafe. And they were truly for everyone. To quote the great historian Gibbon, for the cost of a small copper coin any Roman "could purchase the daily enjoyment of a scene of pomp and luxury which might excite the envy of the Kings of Asia."

To meet consumer demands for public baths, the engineers built elaborate aqueducts to bring, from miles away, some 220 million gallons of water a day. So, with the baths the Roman engineers began the trend toward a consumer culture based on luxury because the public baths weren't needed anymore than a soft drink or a microwave oven is today.

So, tonight take a few moments to pay homage to our western heritage from the Romans: Flip on your TV, click to a shopping channel and watch them hawk useless trinkets.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises