by Austin Scarberry
The following transcript is from a HIST101 lecture given by Professor Sara Atef at Agrippa Academy in Epicurisia on 14 Hekatombaōin, 1295 CE. It has been translated from its original Greek.
Brilliant minds of the Empire have produced wonders across the ages: the automated machinery of our modern day is merely the culmination of centuries’ dedication and curiosity. You all assembled here hoping to be among them. I hope you aspire to this. If you do not, you at least seek to know your betters, and that is admirable in its own way. Regardless of your intentions, I wish for you now to all meditate on the accomplishments of the past which allow you to be here.
(Five minutes are allowed to pass in silence.)
How far back did you travel? Perhaps to the construction of this Academy, the sweat of the builders and the pockets of their sponsors. Perhaps you went further, to those who founded this city a century ago, or further still, to the pilgrims who sailed to this New World and struggled so until it was established in the name of our king. We can go as far as we like, but this is far enough for our means. Here we find the most crucial of inventions, that power which granted our forebears the ability to travel faster, stay warmer, fight harder, and rest easier. Here, encased in steel and panting beneath the pilgrims’ feet, we find the steam engine.
The steam engines of now are capable of anything, employing careful mathematics and painstaking precision to bend networks of heat and moisture to our will. Even these advanced models share a common ancestor, and with the luxury of retrospect it seems a simpleton of an ancestor indeed. Still, retrospect is a cursed thing to the optimist, so we are better served admiring the humble roots of our cutting-edge technology. Let us cast our minds further back now, a millennium or so, to the core of civilization itself.
The city of Alexandria was then as it is now: a thriving mecca of free thought and intrepid minds. The Old World was a place full of mystery, and our people’s natural response to mystery has always been inquisition. Ask a question, and the Greeks will seek an answer. This is true now as well as then, yet the world contains fewer mysteries now, and therefore prompts fewer to quest for insight. Legends of philosophy and material sciences populated Alexandria in those days, far too many to elaborate on in one afternoon, and no doubt you have heard of them already: Hypatia, Euclid, Eratosthenes. We will explore the legacies of these our forerunners later in the term, but for now we focus on a singular mind among them. Let us examine Hero, also known as Heron.
A mathematician and inventor, Hero taught at the Library of Alexandria from approximately 43 to 65 CE. His contributions were mainly in the field of geometry, though some cheeky folk might first name the vending machine as his greatest pre-steam work. His first foray into steam power came in the form of the aeolipile, a device which harnessed the power of heated water to turn a suspended globe in its frame. It was a marvel, to be sure, but one of little practical value. The aeolipile found use in some temples as a primitive symbol of divinity, a practice which over centuries evolved into our ever-present Gefenist network-monuments. Still, this is not a lecture on theology or artistic engineering, and I am getting ahead of myself. Outside of an amusing party trick, the aeolipile seemed consigned to a humble, if intriguing, side note in Hero’s long list of accomplishments.
Hero was not one to accept uselessness, however. He refused to entertain that such fascinating technology possessed no potential for practical purpose. Some of you here might learn from him. He wondered to himself: “what might be accomplished if the force of the steam could be stored and applied at a later time, perhaps even to a different aim?” From this curiosity grew the most significant endeavor of Hero’s life, and indeed, of the ancient era.
Again I emphasize that this is not an engineering course, nor a lecture on Hero’s contributions to mathematics. I leave your education in such fields to my illustrious colleagues. Suffice it to say that Hero and a team of nearly two dozen like-minded scientists spent the next three decades exploring the application and theory of his device. Much of what he learned was compiled in his famous text Pneumatica, which you may reference at your leisure should you desire further detail. Finally, the seeds of their labor bore fruit, and Hero’s Engine was revealed to the world.
An engine, of course, is a device which can convert energy into motion, and the aeolipile was technically such a device already. When the refined product was unveiled before King Herod Agrippa II in the year 81 CE, however, there was no comparison. Hero’s Engine was capable of propelling an entire ship without need for sails or oars, could drive a cart faster than even the strongest beasts of burden, was even able to propel objects great distances as if let loose from a bow. And most fantastic of all, it could do all these things without need for human input. Yes, the age of automation was ushered in not quietly, but with great clamor, and Hero’s twilight years were steeped in fame and idolization until his death in 89 CE.
What had begun as an already ambitious dream quickly grew beyond even what its inventors could ever have predicted. As steam-powered ships crossed the Mediterranean Sea with unprecedented speed, Alexandria’s port suddenly seemed too small for the rapid flow of cargo and carriers. The city grew richer, and the surrounding region turned its attention toward the new power at Herod’s disposal. It did not take long for others to reverse-engineer the machine, yet by the time they caught up, Alexandria had swelled to twice its size and many times its previous, already significant, influence.
In the hundred years following the advent of steam power, brutal conflicts were fought over its rights and ownership. Naturally, the miracle technology was swiftly adapted to making war. Remember that even during its unveiling, Hero had demonstrated how the engine might be used to propel objects with great force. Indeed, it could reasonably be argued that this alone is what caught Herod’s eye and encouraged him to sponsor the technology and its distribution, for when fighting inevitably broke out, the military forces of the Herodian dynasty were equipped and trained with a seemingly undefeatable trump card.
They harnessed Hero’s Engine to produce the swiftest navies known to man, outfitted with steam-cannons which could sink opposing fleets without need to put themselves in range of the enemy’s missiles. They issued the earliest known steamarms, far deadlier and, likewise, capable of lethality from a far greater range than any weaponry previously developed. Logistically, too, they held the advantage, as steam-powered carts, the earliest automobiles, ensured more efficient supply lines and entirely eliminated the costs of pack-beasts. Within two generations, all resistance had sputtered out, and in 144 CE the Herodian dynasty officially blossomed into the Herodian Empire.
As the Mediterranean fell under the Empire’s banners, its leaders began to turn their gazes outward, toward the undiscovered and undeveloped world beyond. With the technologies at their disposal, quagmires of communication and logistics over great distances were nearly attainable, yet even steam power had its limitations. The pace of expansion slowed as the development of stronger, more robust steam engines petered out. Without the genius which accompanied Hero, lesser minds were left to improve on concepts far beyond their own capabilities. The Empire was forced to rest for centuries to accommodate the scientists’ ineptitude.
Then, at last, another came forth accompanied by genius. The cult of Christianity had endured, albeit just so, as the wonders of steam power rivaled and at times eclipsed the miracles of Jesus of Nazareth, leaving the Empire’s spiritual demographics far from homogenous. Out of this rift arose Gefen of Cyprus. I leave the judgments of Gefen’s divinity to the theology department and will not indulge any assertions for or against this claim during examination. What is certain is their influence on the Empire.
Gefen was a brilliant inventor gifted with that which their peers of the time lacked: creativity. They noted the need for expedient communications in order for the Empire to resume its expansion and set to work addressing the issue. While others attempted to supplant the old ways of the natural world with modern ingenuity, Gefen made efforts to combine the two. Reflecting what would become Gefenist doctrine, they sought to merge humanity’s animal nature with its superior intelligence. The results played large part in establishing their reputation as the younger child of the Hebrew God.
Male logic and female intuition became one in Gefen. Rather than replacing messenger birds, they used the power of steam and – it is questionably claimed – divine inspiration to create a new form of life: a synthetic carrier bird. Crafted from metal and powered by a new steam engine of their own making, Gefen freely shared the designs with any who asked. Destinations could now be programmed simply by inputting coordinates and assigning a password to deter interception. The synth-carriers of course outpaced birds of blood and bone by many times, but it was this allowance of precise destinations which once again sparked an era of expansion.
Finding the cold north detrimental to the synth-carriers’ function, the Empire, now helmed by Emperor Salome III, launched an eastward campaign in Gameliṓn 613. Progress through the Middle Eastern lands was quick and provoked little resistance; after all, Gefenists were avid conversionists, and with new synthetic animals being produced nearly every year to ease the toils of daily life, their task came easy. So it was that the Empire went largely unopposed, annexing kingdom after kingdom.
The Seresian Empire was the only force large enough to match our own, and match it they did. In fact, they continue to do so, as you all are well aware. Although armed with relatively primitive weaponry, eastern leadership displayed great shrewdness. They worked in harmony with their natural geography to effectively skirmish, capturing our synth-carriers and steamarms, stalling until such a time as their own scientists could master the technology. Then, in Elapheboliṓn of 645, they began a counteroffensive.
I see in several pairs of eyes resentment. You take my assessment of the Seresians’ strengths as praise or admiration. Restrain yourselves. My description is factual, nothing more.
The war will soon enter its seventh century. Trade between our empires is conducted behind a veneer of plausible deniability even as our soldiers and synth-beasts blast and tear each other to pieces day after day. Our technology has once again stagnated. Theirs has likewise plateaued. The stalemate will be broken sooner or later, this is not in question. The only question is this: when the next Hero or Gefen is born, will they be Herodian, or Seresian? This responsibility is given to you, the next generation of academics. Do not disappoint your countrymen. Do not disappoint your emperor.
I will now conduct oral examinations. When I call your name, come forth and deliver your interpretation of the lecture. When it is not your turn, remain seated in silence. Should you desire, you may open your course text to page 221 and familiarize yourself with the imperial family tree while you wait. The second part of the lecture will take place after the final examination.
Here ends the lecture transcript. Part two may be found in the HIST101 records, file reference number 134855.
Austin Scarberry is a writer and pastry chef based in Portland, Oregon, U.S.A. He mainly writes poetry and fantasy fiction, using the gentle thoughtfulness he learned from baking to construct stories with care. You can also read his work in Oprelle Publications’ upcoming poetry anthology Matter – 2021, Edition II.
I have always been fascinated by the aeolipile and ancient engineering in general, so this story was borne of that curiosity. The ancient Greek educational and philosophical traditions are a great inspiration to me, so I combined these two fascinations and tried to write a story about how those styles of instruction might evolve over time in a global education system similar to modern Western universities. It is my hope that readers may find the student-interpretation system presented in the story refreshing and perhaps even interesting enough to try.