IEEE History Center Teaches How Technology Can Shape Human Destiny

Stevens Institute of Technology’s course on ancient war vessels inspire students and the public

26 June 2015

Image: Stevens Institute of Technology

One student team created a four-view comparison chart of a cutwater bow for designing an ancient naval vessel.

Offering university courses on the history of technology is one of the many ways in which IEEE is raising awareness about engineering. In the 2014 Fall semester, IEEE History Center staffers John Vardalas and Michael Geselowitz co-taught “Engineering in History,” an upper-level history course at Stevens Institute of Technology’s College of Arts & Letters, the new home of the IEEE History Center.

As part of the course, students analyzed the performance of ancient war vessels found in the Eastern Aegean Sea by testing scale models in the very sophisticated tank facility housed in the Davidson Lab, the school’s renowned marine research laboratory. The excitement generated by this class project led the History Center to create a one-day scholarly symposium on the broader topic of the Athenian trireme and its impact on the fate of Western Civilization. The trireme was an ancient naval vessel; a galley manned by 120 rowers arranged vertically in three rows.

To explain the broader engineering significance of the tank’s test results obtained by the Stevens students in their class project, a symposium was held on 10 March. More than 50 people turned out to attend, “Revisiting the Athenian Trireme: Origins, Engineering, and Role in World History,” sponsored by the IEEE History Center and Stevens Institute of Technology’s Office of the Provost, in collaboration with the Onassis Foundation.

Three distinguished scholars addressed the engineering, naval, and historical dimensions of the trireme: Larrie Ferreiro, professor of naval and systems engineering at Stevens; John Hale, director of Liberal Studies at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky and a noted archaeologist; and William Murray, a professor of Greek History at the University of South Florida, in Tampa. Among the attendees were historians of technology, classicists, world historians, naval architects, engineers, as well as some students from the State University of New York’s Maritime College and Stevens. Members of the Society of Marine Architects and Naval Engineers also attended.

Ferreiro explored the historical origins of the triremes design and explained the broader engineering significance of the tank’s test results obtained by the Stevens students in their class project. He also offered an intriguing juxtaposition of early Aegean bow designs and the bulbous bow now found in many large naval and commercial vessels. Hale explained that the trireme promoted broader democracy within Athenian society. Murray discussed the longer-term impact of the trireme on naval strategy in the Mediterranean.

To all who attended the symposium, the trireme and ancient Greece’s use of naval power illustrated the far reaching impact that technology can have in shaping human destiny when embedded in the right mix of social and political institutions. The Greek’s skillful use of the trireme played the pivotal role in thwarting Persia’s ambitions in the 5th century BC to conquer Greece. The trireme saved Greece and enabled the Athenians to forge an empire and develop a culture that still amazes. And, in so doing, the trireme technology, in Greek hands, helped set the foundations for Western democracy. 

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