We live in an age in which one can easily think that our generation has invented and discovered almost everything, but the truth is quite the opposite. Progress cannot be considered as sudden unexpected spurts of individual brains: such a genius, the inventor of everything, has never existed in the history of humanity. What did exist was a limitless procession of experiments made by men who did not waver when faced with defeat, but were inspired by the rare successes that have led to our modern comfortable reality. And that continues to do so with the same enthusiasm.
The study of the origin of engineering as well as its history is valuable for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it can help us to understand the genius of the scientists, engineers, and craftsmen who existed centuries and millenniums before us; who solved problems using the devices of their era, making machinery and equipment whose concept is of such a surprising modernity that we must rethink our image of the past. But there is an even more important reason to study the history of engineering: the authors believe that it is impossible to have a true technical culture if the ideas and the work of those who came before us are ignored. Culture, in whatever field, consists in understanding and not simply in know-how.
Culture, in whatever field, consists in understanding and not simply in know-how. For this reason, it is essential to learn how a certain phenomenon was understood and how the application of that knowledge evolved through the centuries. For the same reason, it is important that the scientists of our generation transmit an interest in and taste for the accomplishments of ancient engineers. Young engineers should be familiar with the knowledge of the past if they are to understand the present and perceive the future. Moreover, engineering must be considered that discipline that tries to give to man the possibility to outperform his body’s limits.
Undoubtedly the Roman Empire was a society of great accomplishments (probably even today not yet completely understood) in many fields of science, technology, and law; they started from the Italian peninsula but they do not belong just to the Italians. First of all, most of the inventions and the technology of the Roman Empire were not invented by Latin inventors; in fact, one of the merits of the Romans consisted in recognizing, appreciating and using the intellectual abilities of other peoples.
In addition, the quality of organization and the “sense of a State” has been retained more by the German and Anglo-Saxon peoples than by the Latin ones; hence, the heritage of the Roman Empire, today, belongs to people who study and appreciate those ages and those men. Moreover, living in Italy, the authors have had more chance to see and investigate Roman relics. However, certainly a large number of the inventions that are precursors of the present were developed at that age.
It is quite possible that the first industrial revolution started during the Roman Empire. Many aspects suggest this hypothesis: the Romans had a strong incentive to make great progress towards unification and standardization in the production of goods. At certain periods, the Roman Armed Forces had up to 500,000 men, all of whom had to be equipped with everything they needed to live, clothe and shelter themselves and fight. The army needed unified and interchangeable equipment because its military units had to be able to go anywhere in various sized units; this meant that unified industrial production systems were crucial to fulfill the army’s needs.
The resulting standardization that probably was devised for those military uses was subsequently extended to civil applications: many of the components used in the various systems, such as hydraulic valves and pipes, cart wheels and gauges and so on, had standardized dimensions and were interchangeable throughout the Empire. This history was clearly delineated by Vitruvius, the most famous Roman engineer.
It was the book De architectura written by Vitruvius which inspired many artists including the great painter Leonardo da Vinci who drew the Vitruvian Man: the human body inscribed in the circle and the square.