Thursday, December 31, 2009

Engineering an Empire

Engineering an Empire: the title I thought was an interesting combination of two words: engineering and empire.  It was enough to catch my attention.

My initial guess was that engineering was meant in a figurative sense; the producers way of sexing up ‘to build’. Who else have been credited in building these empires other than those charismatic larger than life leaders, the emperors and the generals? A feature of how they made empires was my aim because in stories of that nature those emperors and generals are the heroes.

The first episode on the British Empire proved me wrong. Engineering was meant to be literal: the profession involved in building various forms of infrastructure, machines and other forms of technology. It was a pleasant surprise I must say because the show was never boring considering ancient building techniques are not everybody’s first choice when studying empires, least of all mine.

What kept the show interesting was that it did not deviate from the format of historical features. A viewer will still see important dates, the important personages and milestones.

This use of familiar faces and dates acted as a picture frame for the entire series, which houses its key point, the engineering. While military skill expands an empire, the show implies in some way that engineering is the backbone of it all; that a civilization’s mastery of the discipline can be the catalyst that catapults it to be greater than the others.

Engineering, according to the series points comes in at least three forms. There the utilities, which includes aqueducts, sewage, or roads; just about anything that is of general benefit to the public. Second, infrastructure for reasons of prestige or as a symbol of power; it is built just for the sake of having it because no other civilization or country can. The third and most obvious is military technology which is a basic requirement if a nation wants to carve out new territory.

Credit for an interesting series can also be given to Robocop star Peter Weller who, to my surprise, is an academic; having a professorial post at Syracuse University, teaching Fine Arts and Literature. Rare is an actor hosting a series like this for reasons beyond acting. In Weller’s case it can be said that he knew as much or more than the script he was reading from.

He had presence, which more than I can say for many professors. But Peter Weller’s passionate explanation was not all that made the series interesting but also the topic itself.

Ancient civilizations gives one an image of hammers and nails which is to say the techniques are primitive or unsophisticated compared to present engineering and can therefore be irrelevant. That would be the wrong  point of view.

The techniques may be antiquated but the projects are indeed comparable to the present day. Every episode I keep asking myself over and over how can they do that; especially in the absence of computers and heavy equipment. The organization and planning required collecting the materials and leading the enormous manpower is something I cannot imagine.

Take for example the aqueducts; this infrastructure used for water transport requires only gravity for transporting water for dozens and dozens of miles. I have difficulty picturing how one would create consistently accurate and gradual downward sloping; elevated maybe ten, twenty, maybe thirty feet off the ground over a great spans of uneven land using a series of arches. Add to that the manpower that is composed of either peasant or slave; let’s just say that Union trouble was the least of their worries.

Considering that they were suppose to be primitive I had this misguided (I now realize) opinion that I can easily grasp the idea. The accuracy needed for the end product plus the logistics for all the stone and supplies; as well as the command structure needed for what I assume are plenty of slaves; makes my jaw drop just imagining the possibilities. I mean if they were that good then shouldn’t man be on starships now, at least that’s what I think.

Overall I’d compare this documentary series to CSI. Typical detective shows before Crime Scene Investigations had the police at the forefront. Protecting the streets, solving crime, would not have been possible without those brave policemen or detectives kicking those doors down and shooting their gun. The police were the heroes being the sharp end of law enforcement.

After CSI, the lab guys, geeks and scientists became the heroes. For Engineering an Empire the spotlight has been taken away from those Julius Caesars or Alexanders and instead aimed on those builders and engineers who have all been overshadowed by the military.

If nation has an Alexander the Great chances favor it in every battle. But as Sun Tzu said of war, “There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”

So beyond war a civilization needs its infrastructure; its people well sustained; creative, and believes in the idea that makes them a nation.

In Engineering an Empire the engineer, the geek and not the warrior, can be the hero.