The Flight of the Sorceress

The Flight of the Sorceress
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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Ancient Robots? No Way!

Ancient Robots?  No Way! 

Did you ever imagine that Alexandria had coin-operated vending machines and viable plans for robotic kitchen help, nearly two thousand years ago?

In my historical novel, The Flight of the Sorceress, you will find a brief reference to an inventor named Hero of Alexandria, who lived contemporaneously with Jesus Christ. Hero constructed the first known steam engine and also a rudimentary rocket engine. He invented the first coin-operated vending machines. In about 60 AD, Hero built the first programmable robot, a cart that could carry a group of automata to the front of a stage where they would perform for an audience. He developed plans for a robot that could automatically pour wine.

But even Hero stood on the shoulders of inventors who came centuries before. Some historians point to the Greek, Archytas (428–347 BC) as the earliest of these. Called the founder of mathematical mechanics, Archytas, whose own writings do not survive, was reputed to have designed and built the first artificial, self-propelled flying device propelled by a jet of what was probably steam. It was said to have actually flown some 200 meters.

Two centuries later, Ctesibius, who lived between 285-222 BC, wrote treatises on how air could be compressed and used for pumps and even to fire cannon. He invented a clock that kept better time than any clock created thereafter until the pendulum clocks that were developed in the 17th century. He is called the father on pneumatics.

Although he was affiliated with the Library of Alexandria, the works of Ctesibius do not survive. Nor do most of the works of Hero. We have only a portion and those were saved by the Muslim conquerors of Alexandria.

The Flight of the Sorceress tells the story of the consequences of religious intolerance and the destruction of inconvenient knowledge by religious extremists of all stripes. It can easily be postulated that because the Church-sponsored Dark Ages, humanity is at least a thousand years behind in its state of knowledge. Religious zealotry destroyed so much classical learning, burnt so many books and wiped out the work of so many brilliant minds, all in the name of God, that our scientific and cultural losses cannot even be estimated.

Today, I read the paper to find that two very stupid ministers, Wayne Jones and Terry Sapp, ministers of the (absurdly misnamed) Dove World Outreach Center in Florida burned a Quran in Florida in front of their flock of very stupid parishioners. And upon hearing about this book-burning, three very stupid mullahs incited hundreds of very stupid followers to go on a rampage and kill Americans. When the mob couldn’t find any Americans upon whom to vent their rage, they settled for four Nepalese, a Romanian, a Norwegian and a Swede. Another ten people were just murdered in Kandahar (races, genders and religions to be announced.)

It’s not like this stupidity came out of the blue. Last September, Gen. David Petraeus warned Wayne Jones that burning the Quran would set off this kind of rioting. Yet he and Sapp went ahead with their book burning, with the apparently enthusiastic support of their cretin following. They all knew that their actions would incite people to riots that could lead to deaths. And the equally narrow-minded mullahs in their mosques in Afghanistan knew that haranguing the idiots who listen to them with hate-filled sermons would summon up a murderous rage.

Not all followers of Islam or Christianity are like these people. Actually the inciters and the rioters have more in common with each other than with their supposed co-religionists. They think alike in their intolerance. They act alike in their appeal to hatred and violence. And they have the gall to place all the responsibility for the consequences of their personal behavior on God. All of them are co-conspirators in an incitement to mob violence. They are felonious miscreants and accomplices in murder.
The Flight of the Sorceress, though a novel, seeks to impart a timely warning. We will reap much more of this if we allow ourselves to stumble into the quicksand of religious intolerance. If we continue to sow the seed that the U.S. is a Christian nation and not a secular state, we will only accelerate that process. We will become a nation of book-burners, ever in need of the sword, always living in fear, behind walls and parapets, mistrustful of each other, ready to cast blame everywhere but upon ourselves. And when the bonfire of words dwindles to embers we won’t flinch tossing on people to keep the flames a-burning. That’s what happened during the Dark Ages, and there’s no reason to think that civilization has completely recuperated from that first go-round. After all, from a scientific standpoint, we’ve not come a lot further than first century Alexandria with its coin-operating vending machines and rocket engines.  


  1. Very thought provoking, Barry. And, while I share your abhorrence of all these idiots, I must take issue with one aspect of your treatise. No way should the idiots who burned that book be compared as equals to anyone who would take offense and go off trying to kill people who could have had nothing to do with the offense. Burning a book is a bad thing, especially if it has significance for any group of people. But to encourage senseless slaughter of innocents falls into a totally different category.
    Bottom line, though, the jerks in Florida might do well to stick their collective heads out a fortieth story window, feet first!
    My take,
    Pat Dale

  2. Yes, and how much have we lost in destroying the knowledge of traditional peoples, the healers who were deemed witches and devil worshipers?