Donald Hill – A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times


Not the most resounding title. Give it a chance, though, because this is the book to set straight anyone who still thinks that the Victorian habit of referring to everything after the Romans left as ‘The Dark Ages’ is helpful in any way. It was all happening in Moorish Spain. The notions that the Greeks tried out on a small scale got tested and improved on, with the North African input making all the difference. There’s a chapter here about adapting sailing techniques and inventing the windmill that on its own makes it obvious how much more was going on while Alfred the Great was sloshing through swamps.

The book is more thematic than purely chronological, tackling aqueducts, bridges and other big Civil Engineering monuments, then mechanisms used in agriculture or navigation and finally to astrolabes, surgical devices, clocks and, most surprisingly, automata. I was intrigued by the copper birds that the Islamic scholars and artificers devised, water-powered and capable of singing and spreading their wings, by all accounts. I could have stood to have seen better photos and more illustrations but the complete lack of gosh-wow Discovery Channel-ness was refreshing. It’s a sober, scholarly book about an astonishing subject, which makes the content that bit more exciting because you know it’s not being over-sold to make a quick buck.

By Tat Wood