Ancient Technology

Staff Picks

Ancient Technology

High Tech from the Ancient Past to the Present

We live in a time of what seems like endless technological innovation that many look back at past eras as technologically sluggish and unimaginative. However, just like now, peoples at all times have been innovating and creative, sometimes in ways contemporary people have trouble imagining themselves, and we can thank ancient peoples for many of the technological advancements we appreciate today. The technologies of today didn’t emerge from nothing. They have histories that shaped their development. To learn more about ancient science and technology, the people doing the innovating, and ancient technology’s impact in its time and ours, check out some of these books below!

Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology by Adrienne Mayor

Drone warfare, exoskeletons, artificial intelligence? According to Adrienne Mayor, these seemingly contemporary technologies have been foreshadowed quite sophisticatedly in ancient Greek mythology. With mythological concepts being developed both in the abstract and in practice, Mayor demonstrates the technological bent to Greek mythology inspired much technological innovation of antiquity and shows ancient people wrestling with similar ethical implications of advanced technologies that contemporary people experienced today. This book captures the joys of reading classical mythologies while deepening their readings with a new lens focused on their scientific and technological implications.  

Artificial Intelligence: A Visual HIstory by Clifford A. Pickover

This inspiring collection of pictural works traces visual representations of artificial intelligence and mechanical life from late antiquity to the present. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, making this book a treasured trove of the history of technology. Each image tells its own story, and each are woven together into historical narrative from past to present. Give your eyes a break from wordy text and give them an artistic feast of knowledge with this visual history of artificial intelligence.

The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science by Seb Falk

The Middle Ages often get cast as a time of technological stagnation and philosophical dogmatism. But people in the Middle Ages were as innovative as today, and The Light Ages shows readers the scientific and technological achievements of the post-Classical world. Centering on the works of the monk John of Westwyk, and then expanding to the people and works he was influenced by and influenced, Falk takes readers across continents to see how scientific and technological communication and debate happened across borders, languages and cultures.  Particularly, the book focuses on monasteries as centers of learning and experimentation, rich with libraries and connections throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life by Gaby Wood

Edison’s Eve dives into the ways Enlightenment philosophers, scientists, and some charlatans thought and experimented about what we would call today robotics and artificial intelligence. From talking dolls and automata ducks that can eat, to chess playing and chess-playing machines and mechanical orchestras, the Enlightenment spawned the same attempts at artificial life and intelligence that capture our imagination today. Taking on the big personalities that tried to make big scientific, technological, and economic waves with their inventions, author Gaby Wood demonstrates that the possibilities and quandaries of artificial intelligence are nothing new.  

You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf, from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia by Jack Lynch

This book takes the history of compendiums, aggregated knowledge, and reference books as its subject. While not a technology in the strictest sense, these collections, according to author Jack Lynch, are an underappreciated cornerstone of scientific, technological, cultural innovation. Too often we focus on the flashiest of inventions and most paradigm-shifting discoveries, without recognizing that without the work or organizing information, innovators would never have had access to cross-disciplinary and historic data from which to draw and connect in new ways. Organized as a kind of reference book of reference books, see how information was organized and collected from the ancient past to today.  

About the Author:

Jeffrey Gluckman is a Library Associate at the Northeast Neighborhood Library. He likes to read about ancient history, contemporary ethnographies, and lots of speculative fiction. When not reading, he can be found visiting DC’s many museums, bowling, or seeing a new theatre productions. He also facilitates the “Page to Stage Book Club,” where we read books that have inspired musicals, enriching our understanding and appreciation of both.