Lost Knowledge

The Concept of Vanished Technologies and Other Human Histories


Lost Knowledge: The Concept of Vanished Technologies and Other Human Histories examines the idea of lost knowledge, reaching back to a period between myth and history. It investigates a peculiar idea found in a number of early texts: that there were civilizations with knowledge of sophisticated technologies, and that this knowledge was obscured or destroyed over time along with the civilization that had created it. This book presents critical studies of a series of early Chinese, South Asian, and other texts that look at the idea of specific “lost” technologies, such as mechanical flight and the transmission of images. There is also an examination of why concepts of a vanished “golden age” were prevalent in so many cultures. Offering an engaging and investigative look at the propagation of history and myth in technology and culture, this book is sure to interest historians and readers from many backgrounds.

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Benjamin B. Olshin is a Professor of Philosophy, the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, and Design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He has written in a broad range of areas, including the history of cartography, the sociology of technology, the philosophy of science, and design.
Preface ix
Acknowledgements xiii
List of Figures xiv

1 Speculations and Fantasies 1
1 Lost Knowledge, Technology, and the Patterns of History 1
2 The Nature of Ancient Knowledge 5
3 A New Approach 11
4 The Sources 14
5 Technology in the Remote Past: the Case of Frederick Soddy 19
6 Speculations and Methods 35

2 Ancient Tales of Flying Machines 40
1 Two Types of Tales 40
2 Chinese Stories of Flying Machines 45
3 Korean Accounts of Flying Machines 56
4 South Asian Tales of Flying Vehicles 75
5 Ainu Stories of Flying Machines 89
6 Hopi Lore about Flying Vehicles 96
7 Tales from Oceania about Flying Vehicles 99
8 A Synthesis of Traditions in the “Flying Horse” Tales 101
9 Terms and Types 110

3 Magic Mirrors and Early Televisions 114
1 Mirrors in History 114
2 Two Chinese Diagnostic Mirrors 123
3 A Mirror to Locate Illness and a Mirror to “Illuminate the Bones” 126
4 Looking into Chinese Mirrors 131
5 Mirrors, Meaning, and Context 134
6 Another Diagnostic Device 136
7 Mirrors and Medicine 138
8 Jīvaka’s Diagnostic Device 140
9 A Magic Mirror Trick? 142
10 Traditions of Transmitted Images in Central American and Persian Cultures 149
11 Prester John and Western Traditions of Long-Distance Mirrors 158
12 Remote Communication in the Works of Paracelsus and Francis Bacon 163
13 Traditions Concerning Special Mirrors and Telescopes 166
14 Chinese Tales of Image Transmission 171
15 Technology in Context 175

4 The Missing Land of Atlantis 177
1 A Question of Identity 177
2 Atlantis in Plato’s Timaeus 182
3 Plato and the Idea of History 190
4 The Geography of Atlantis 202
5 Fiction, Myth, and History 209
6 Transmission, Memory, and Text 214
7 Atlantis in Plato’s Critias 218
8 Atlas, Atlantis, and a Question of Interpretation 236
9 Ancient Views of the Remote Past 238
10 Numbers and Technical Detail in the Story of Atlantis 245
11 Atlantis: in Search of an Interpretation 255

5 Rings and Dangerous Powers 271
1 The Nature of a Folktale 271
2 The Tale of Gyges in Plato’s Republic 273
3 The Background and Setting of the Tale of Gyges 277
4 The Elements of the Tale: the Cave 280
5 The Elements of the Tale: the Horse 282
6 The Elements of the Tale: the Body 284
7 The Elements of the Tale: the Ring 292
8 Conclusions: Technology and the Fate of a Civilization 297

6 The Nature, Encoding, and Transmission of Knowledge 308
1 Storing Knowledge 308
2 Transmission through Time 310
3 The Concept of “Encoding” 318
4 Knowledge and Loss 325
5 Knowledge and Myth, Knowledge in Myth 338
6 Changing Knowledge, Changing History 346

7 Conclusions — What Did They Mean? 353
1 Technology and the Concept of the “Golden Age” 353
2 More on the “City of Brass” 360
3 Knowledge Transmission and Cyclical History 363
4 How Far Back? 368
5 The Methods for the Transmission of Knowledge 375
6 The Idea of “Lost Knowledge” and the Nature of Myth 378
7 Looking at the Texts 383
8 Reading Texts 388
9 Towards the Future 391

Bibliography 395
Index 452
All those interested in history, history of science and technology, Classical languages and literature, East Asian studies, folktales, myth, and cultural studies.
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