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Roman Text Messaging

I suspect that ever since people discovered they could speak, the limitations of how far a human voice will carry has been a major pisser. The human voice will carry pretty far though, especially over water or in arid regions, even just speaking normally. When you figure in how far it’s possible to actually yell, even under perfect desert or flat water conditions (no idea how far that actually is) it’s still not very far and of course everyone else can hear what is being said as well. Today, while not impossible, text messages, email and voice communications are typically encrypted or at least compressed making interception difficult.

Few people aside from myself would find a world without text messaging tolerable today. I just hate it. I’d much prefer to have a 15 second phone call to take the place of an email or text, but it does have it’s uses. Texting is far from a modern invention, in fact the Romans had perfected a rudimentary system more then 2,000 years ago, with encryption and with ranges of 10 miles or more, which is actually further than your cell phone will work (you have to be closer than that to a tower usually).

They used water clocks. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, it’s remarkably simple. If you poke a single, identical hole in each of two identical bottles of water, they will empty in exactly the same amount of time, think of how an hourglass works if it still doesn’t make sense. Obviously using this method you could make endless numbers of more or less identical “clocks” that would all mark the same amount of time, the only limitations being how large you can make them.

What the Romans did was set devices like this up on walls or towers or other outposts of various kinds. With each post having identical code books, one outpost could signal another, both would then un-stopper their respective water clock and the sender of the message would further signal at the point where the stopper was to replaced. By measuring how much water had escaped, imagine a dozen or so markings, a specific, complex message could be relayed in almost total secrecy and in a remarkably short period of time.

You see a similar system, albeit with only a single possible message, depicted in one of the Lord of the Rings movies. A long chain of signal fires were lit in succession to relay a call for assistance over a long mountain range. Obviously this system would be a kind of a one shot wonder, because a tremendous amount of wood would need replacing after each usage and only a single message could be sent, but the idea is the same, whether with fire, water or today with the radios we all have called cell phones.

The Greek King Agamemnon is said to have used a similar system of signal fires to pass the news of his victory at Troy, some 600 km to his capital city in only a few hours. The truth of whether there was even a Trojan War doesn’t matter, because the same signaling method had been used before, albeit over shorter distances, but in less time.

Regarding the Roman water clock system I described, even this was a Greek game (c. 4th Century BC) the Romans took and went pro with. You can see the floats with graduated sticks poking out the top that would indicate which message was being sent, based on how low they sunk because of the escaping water. They even have recreated “code books” shown.

Greek Hydraulic Telegraph

If you’ve ever listened to Rush Limbaugh you’ve probably heard the sound cut of him saying “there are no new ideas, there are only old ideas”, or words to that effect. I’m not sure if that is an original quote of his or whether he picked it up from somewhere, but it’s really quite true with regard to a great many things. Imagining you have had an original idea is probably not accurate. One might have a new application for an idea, or you may have access to technology not available before that make the idea possible, but the chances are pretty good that someone else had the idea first. Ideas that are truly original are often times found to have evolved in remote areas, even Da Vinci with his helicopter was an old idea polished up and applied in a different way. You should notice that his helicopter bears a close resemblance to the Archimedes Screw, which is a rudimentary water pump still in use today. Really the only reason his chopper wouldn’t work is due to air’s low density in comparison with water, not due to an issue with the concept itself.

Di Vinchi's Chopper

Archimedes Screw

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. 2012/02/10 at 18:01

    I forgot to mention that what made me think of this was the Mythbusters episode where they are testing out peeing on the electrified third rail. Adam makes a device which is really a water clock, meant to release urine at a steady, predictable, and humanly possible rate.

  1. 2012/03/12 at 00:57

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