Blogs > Cliopatria > Retro-Technology

Jan 14, 2004 9:02 pm


An article in the January issue of Cryptologia by computer scientist Gordon Rugg, as reported in The Economist, speculates that the famously incomprehensible Voynich manuscript may be a 16th Century “low-tech” hoax. In the past, people have tended to think that it couldn’t be a hoax because it actually seems to have patterns and regularities that would be impossible to sustain consistently if you were just doodling and making it up as you go along. Rugg’s article as summarized describes a simple method using tables of characters and a set of cardboard squares that generates a text rather like the manuscript.

The general study of retro-technology strikes me as the premier field for demonstrating that technical knowledge is not a matter of linear cumulation over time, and one of the best illustrations that the past truly is a foreign country. There’s nothing further from the truth than A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court : cast into medieval Europe, or 12th Century Africa, or Ming China, and magically granted perfect ability to speak and understand languages, a modern person would still flounder simply in their ability to use, not to mention make, the characteristic technologies of the day, both everyday and extraordinary ones.

The Secrets of Lost Empires series on the PBS program Nova did a marvelous job of demonstrating that a few years ago.

Turns out it’s pretty difficult to build an effective fortress-smashing catapult. Merely having an expertise in modern engineering doesn’t allow you to just quickly McGuyver one up out of a few logs and some rubber bands.

It's great stuff, at any rate. I think one of the dream research projects in the whole world would be putting an inventive technologist together with a historian, giving them some millions of dollars and institutional support, and letting them methodically study retro-technology. Not only is it a great cure for the hubris of modernity, it’s a pretty instructive guide to the kinds of actual social and economic infrastructure that past societies must have had to build and use their characteristic technologies.

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John G. Fought - 1/17/2004

I used to know a professional cryptologist who had been working on the Voynich ms. on his own time for years. He was convinced it was in a Slavic language. That was all he could say. Not exactly a decipherment.
I would also note that producing language-like patterns is not just easy but almost unavoidable when people work with many tokens in this way. Martin Joos, some of whose linguistics courses I took in the old days, recounted an experiment he conducted with a roomful of skilled typists, in the still older days of WWII when he worked on crypto. He instructed the typists to type random numbers in groups of five. A variety of interacting alternation patterns became well established within the the first line or two: odd - even, left hand - right hand, finger sequences, etc, and these remained or grew stronger through the rest of the exercise.

back40 - 1/16/2004

I think there's a book in there too.

Ben Keen - 1/15/2004

I was well acquainted with an Egyptian aerospace engineering student in the early days of my graduate education. Khaled once mentioned that nobody in *Egypt* ever thought that the pyramids were made with the help of aliens...

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