By Robert Gardner
STUDENTS AT MICHIGAN'S LAWRENCE
TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY PARTAKE OF ENGINEERING'S RICH
HERITAGE—WHILE USING ROMAN TECHNOLOGY TO FIRE MARSHMALLOWS.
group of students at Lawrence Technological University in
Southfield, Mich., spent last summer building something the
Roman Legions might have found useful had they still been
around. As part of the school's new "Ancient Engineering"
course, groups of engineering and architecture students built
working models of ancient pieces of technology. One of the
more martial groups chose to build a Roman catapult, or "onager,"
derived from the Latin for "kicking jackass."
"They had deadly aim," says Stephen Bertman, adjunct
professor in the Department of Humanities, Social Sciences,
and Communications and author of several books on the ancient
world. Their ordnance of marshmallow and clay was decidedly
Bertman, who has a Ph.D. in classics from Columbia University,
asked all the students doing projects to refrain from using
modern materials as much as possible so they would face materials
challenges similar to those of their predecessors. Counting
as extra credit, the projects were presented to the class
after the final exam. Bertman says it went so well that he
plans to make them part of the course requirements.
Three other groups built projects: One a model of a "shaduf,"
used in the Near East to effortlessly raise water from a reservoir
to a bucket; another a model of a screw pump used in ancient
Greece to raise dry beans from a storage bin; and a third
a "leaking sand" box like the ones used in ancient
Egypt to lower a Pharaoh's sarcophagus into a pyramid
The course met for 12 weeks over May and June. Open to all
majors, "Ancient Engineering" had 25 junior and
senior engineering and architecture students. Bertman says
interest in the class was high. "The course filled up
immediately, even though it wasn't heavily advertised."
LTU's policy of limiting course enrollments to 25, he
says, forced him to turn students away.
The course's goal is to explore the challenges faced
and overcome by engineers from the dawn of history to the
Roman Empire. The course begins humbly with a discussion of
"Engineering for Survival," the making of stone
age weapons and fire, and follows the rise of civilization
with discussions of the irrigation canals in ancient Iraq,
pyramids in Egypt, the Parthenon in Greece, the Great Wall
of China, and the Roman aqueducts. "I want to show the
students that their profession has a long history,"
The broader goal of the course, Bertman says, is to make his
students aware that technology depends on previous developments,
even as it makes them obsolete. "Technology tends to
cut us off from the past, and I really wanted to get across
the idea of our indebtedness to the past."
Bertman received a Faculty Development Grant from the Kern
Family Foundation of Wisconsin to develop "an innovative
humanities course designed for engineering students."
His course, he adds, is fairly unique. He says there are only
seven universities worldwide he found that teach a course
on ancient technology and his is the only one to focus on
engineering. He hopes students leave his course knowing that
"they are standing on the shoulders of engineers who've
gone before them."
Robert Gardner is Associate Editor of Prism Magazine.