Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

I Probably Should Stop

Posted by Gerald on July 14, 2007

… watching History International.

They had a show on earlier today entitled something like “Where Does it Come From?”  The host mentioned that he was a physicist, which makes sense.  There do not seem to be any historians associated with most of what the History Channel and History International do.  The subject was apartment buildings and the theme was that they originated in Ancient Rome.

To be fair most of the show was fine.  In fact, it featured a very good demonstration of how fullers cleaned clothing in Rome – urine and all.  Two things irked me however, so here we go.

Early in the show the host mentioned the usual height of the Roman insulae and the regulations enacted by both Gaius Julius and Augustus Caesar limiting the height of these buildings to 70 feet and mandating that they have 2 feet thick walls.  Again, there were some good things here.  The host used toast to demonstrate why Roman concrete blocks did not stand up well to torsional strain.  They also went to an engineering firm to do computer models about how high you could safely build a building made of concrete blocks without a steel frame.

First there was the surprise everyone seemed to have when the computer model demonstrated that – guess what – using those building materials at those thicknesses, the maximum safe height for a building was 70 feet – as reflected in the regulations.  Surprise, surprise – people in the past weren’t idiots and had reasons for the things they did!  Maybe I’m being over-sensitive, but there seems to be a contempt for our own ancestors in our popular culture.

The most extreme examples of this are the ridiculous theories that people have put forward about the megaliths in Europe, monumental construction in Egypt, temples and cities in pre-Colombian America, the monuments on Easter Island, etc…  It was aliens, time-travelers, reptiles who dwell in the center of the earth, anyone but the people who lived there.  Because we can’t figure out how they did things with the technology they had available, they must not have done it, there must be some supernatural explanation.  Maybe there is a simpler one: we are the children of some pretty smart and capable people who figured out how to do some pretty amazing things.  I don’t get the attraction so many people have for these unhistorical pieces of nonsense – don’t they WANT to be descended from these smart and capable folks?

Second, the host made a point of saying that the limitations on the height of these building could have been exceeded “if the Romans had used steel rods to reinforce the walls of the buildings” – while showing a shot of a modern skyscraper under construction.  What they never asked, or answered, was why the Romans didn’t do that?  Evidently, it is just because they weren’t clever enough to think of it.

The fact is that using steel rods to build a frame for a building was economically unfeasible.  Until the invention of the Bessemer Converter in the 19th century (itself a product of new insights into chemistry and thermodynamics) steel was produced in small batches by skilled craftsmen.  The Romans had steel – hell, the Germans and Celts had steel (in the case of the Celts, some was better than the Romans) – but it was kind of expensive.  Also, there was another demand for steel – the Roman Army.  Given the limits on supply due to existing technology, and the pressure on price due to demand from the Army, the idea of using steel as a building material was unlikely to occur to anyone.  It could be done, but you would have a very expensive building in the end.

I’m not sure why I felt the need to pontificate so (well, I am a bit of a blow-hard…).  Maybe I’m just in “lecturing withdrawal” since I’m only teaching on-line this summer.  Still, I would like it if the history shows on TV would dig a little deeper and check a little more.

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2 Responses to “I Probably Should Stop”

  1. imfunny2 said

    Reading this comment today, I suddenly had an understanding of a part of “the function of an historian” that even when I was trying to be one, I didn’t grasp completely…

    The function being: If the source material is vetted, as close to primary source material as one can get, and *proves the point* that our ancestors were smart…then historians must defend those who are not here to speak or write in their own defense.

  2. Gerald said

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have always believed that is one of the most important roles for historians. A big part of it is understanding and explaining the past, but there is also a need to keep our historical memory as honest as possible.

    Unfortunately, as a profession we have not always done such a good job of telling everyone’s stories.

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