Archive for April, 2008

Knowledge and Automata in Twelfth-Century French Literature Elly Truitt

For people who are interested in the pre-history of automata here is a link to a fascinating article by Elly Truitt whose dissertation I have previously mentioned on this blog. Given below is an excerpt from the article.

What is more remarkable than the presence of these metal people in this romance is the fact that automata in human form were found frequently in the pages of twelfth-century French romances—copper knights and damsels, golden archers, children, and guardians of tombs. The early twelfth-century chanson de geste Le voyage de Charlemagne contains a description of the emperor of Constantinople’s palace, upon which two golden children blow ivory horns and laugh in a lifelike manner when the wind blows. In Le roman d’Eneas, written around 1160, a metal archer ensures that the sanctity of Camille’s mausoleum remains inviolate. Another midtwelfth-century romance, Le conte de Floire et Blancheflor, mentions the speaking, moving statues of the eponymous lovers erected on Blancheflor’s mock tomb. The Roman d’Alexandre, completed around 1180, features two golden youths, made by augury (par augure) and enchantment (enchantement), armed with maces, guarding a drawbridge. In addition, two copper boys, armed with shields and pikes and made by enchantment (enchant) guard the tomb of the emir of Babylon. The First Continuation of Chrétien’s Perceval, completed in the first decade of the thirteenth century, has two figures guarding the tent of Alardin, an “Eastern” potentate, who can discern knight from churl and maiden from nonvirgin, and then bar the entrances of the latter to the tent.

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Alchemy of Stone

Here is a Clockpunk novel, Alchemy of Stone, that I came to know of recently. The novelist, Ekaterina Sedia is a US novelist of Russian origin. I loved the tagline “A novel of automated anarchy and clockwork lust.” Clockwork lust? Where was I when they invented that? Here is the product description from Amazon.

Mattie, an intelligent automaton skilled in the use of alchemy, finds herself caught in the middle of a conflict between gargoyles, the Mechanics, and the Alchemists. With the old order quickly giving way to the new, Mattie discovers powerful and dangerous secrets – secrets that can completely alter the balance of power in the city of Ayona. However, this doesn’t sit well with Loharri, the Mechanic who created Mattie and still has the key to her heart – literally!

Clockpunk Flickr Galore

Killbox has a Flickr Set on Clockpunk related images. Aesthetically pleasing and would definitely put a smile on any Clockpunker’s face.

How the Ancients thought about Mechanics

The New York Times has a nice article about mechanics in the pre-renaissance era and how the ancients thought about Mechanics. Its worth a read. It is definitely relevant to anyone interested in writing Clockpunk. Its a window for us into the minds of the ancient equivalent of mechanical engineers i.e., people like Archimedes. Thanks to Meika for pointing this out. Here is an excerpt.

Dr. Schiefsky teaches Greek and Latin as his day job and reads Thucydides and Sophocles in ancient Greek for fun. He also majored in astronomy as an undergraduate, and about nine years ago, feeling science-deprived, he joined a multinational research endeavor called the Archimedes Project, based at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

The Archimedes team studies the history of mechanics, how people thought about simple machines like the lever, the wheel and axle, the balance, the pulley, the wedge and the screw and how they turned their thoughts into theories and principles.

The textual record begins with “Mechanical Problems,” moves to Rome and then through the medieval Islamic world to the Renaissance. It ends, finally, with Newton, who described many of the basic laws of mechanics in the 18th century.

There are a surprising number of old, and extremely old, scientific texts that have survived the ravages of time in one form or another. The Archimedes Web site lists far more than 100, including Euclid’s geometry, Hero of Alexandria’s Roman-era technical manual on crossbows and catapults, medieval treatises on algebra and mechanics by Jordanus de Nemore and Galileo’s 17th-century defense of a heliocentric solar system.

The nice thing for Dr. Schiefsky is that hardly anyone reads the stuff. Scientists generally are not into ancient Greek or Latin, let alone Arabic, and most of Dr. Schiefsky’s colleagues work on literature, philosophy, philology or archaeology. In fact, Dr. Schiefsky suggests “about 100 people” worldwide work on both science and the classics.

By following the historical record, the Archimedes researchers have discovered that the evolution of physics — or, at least, mechanics — is based on an interplay between practice and theory. The practical use comes first, theory second. Artisans build machines and use them but do not think about why they work. Theorists explain the machines and then derive principles that can be used to construct more complex machines.

The Archimedes researchers say that by studying this dialectic they can better understand what people knew about the natural world at a given time and how that knowledge may have affected their lives.

“What do you do when you want to weigh a 100-pound piece of meat and you don’t have a 100-pound counterweight?” Dr. Schiefsky asked. “You use an unequal-armed balance, with a small weight on the long arm and the meat on the short arm.”

The uneven balance, known as a steelyard, is a kind of lever, and Dr. Schiefsky notes that it has a cameo in Aristophanes’ “Peace,” a comic fantasy about ending the Peloponnesian War. When a furious arms dealer cannot figure out what to do with a surplus war trumpet, Trygaeus, the central character, suggests pouring lead in the bell to make a steelyard.


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Knowing and Doing

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“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” - Leonardo Da Vinci