Back when I was six or seven, my personal computer was a cassette-tape driven TRS-80, and my favorite game was Pyramid. Pyramid was an endearingly primitive choose-your-own adventure game, in which you gave the program commands it rarely understood, hoping to randomly stumble on something useful, like THROW BIRD. I made it pretty far into the game, only to discover at the heart of the infamous maze of twisty passages, a coin-operated vending machine!
I felt totally ripped off: everyone knows there were no vending machines in ancient Egypt! The game lost some of its luster from this cheap anachronism, and eventually I gave up, moving on to the more fast-paced Centipede clone, Slay the Nereis (OK, I just paused in the middle of writing this post to waste thirty minutes playing Atari’s online version of Centipede. I still get a thrill from the sound of those falling fleas, but how I miss the arcade version’s rollerball).
Anyway, it turns out that Egyptian vending machine wasn’t such a stretch after all. Ancient machines that were derided as toys or flights of fancy are now taken seriously by archaeologists and engineers. The Antikythera mechanism is the best example of this (there was an excellent article about it in the May 15 New Yorker). And Cabinet of Wonders just posted a wonderful essay and collection of links on ancient automata. It’s incredibly interesting reading.
Apparently there was a coin-operated vending machine (for holy water!) two thousand years ago – designed by the Greek engineer Hero of Alexandria (or Heron). That was long after the Pyramids were built, but who knows? Maybe Hero wasn’t the first to figure it out. The Antikythera Mechanism survived, albeit in terrible condition, but how many gadgets, including proto-computers and primitive robots, have been lost? It’s a dizzying question – but also an important reminder that biologically, we are neither more intelligent nor more creative now than our ancestors were a few thousand years ago. We’re just starting at a much higher technological baseline.