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Modern-Day Engineers vs. The Romans


To paraphrase Moore’s Law, the overall processing power of computers doubles approximately every two years – we’ve all experienced the thrill of coming across an old computer or laptop, and firing it up to marvel at the apparent lack of horsepower. Nowadays, computers routinely last less than a decade before they’re considered over the hill and replaced with newer, more capable models.

In the early 90s, my parents purchased a gigantic, hulking, grey IBM computer that sat in the corner of our dining room. I remember vividly that neighbours would come round to marvel at it, and the look on my father’s face when he proudly told them he could store ‘five megabytes of information’ on its hard drive. The fact it took ten minutes to boot up and was only marginally smaller than the Large Hadron Collider was a small price to pay for being at the cutting-edge of technology.

If you own a smartphone, chances are you use it to make calls, check your email (Mail Manager is compatible with your smartphone, don’t you know?), read the news and maybe post a tweet or two. What you probably don’t realise, though, is that the average mobile phone contains more raw computing power than NASA had at its disposal when they put Neil Armstrong on the moon. It’s a sobering thought, and shows us that technology moves at an incredible pace – the computers we use today, with their HD displays and their ten gigabytes of memory, will one day become novelties, relegated to dusty cupboards and car boot sales, or trotted out on rainy afternoons when a trip down memory lane is required.

There is a reason for this nostalgia. As engineers, we rely on technology to aid us in producing real-world structures. Modern-day skyscrapers, bridges and arenas are made possible through the use of the latest technology, allowing us to plan, design, adapt, and predict the outcome of a project before a single shovel breaks ground. Technology like this is a relatively new invention – which makes The Colosseum in Rome, a 2,000 year-old structure, all the more impressive.

The Hypogeum

Built as an arena for gladiatorial contests, battle re-enactments, executions and plays, the Colosseum is, even by today’s standards, an incredible feat of engineering. The hypogeum (the area underneath the wooden stage that formed the centre of the amphitheatre) would house animals and gladiators in a vast, two-level subterranean network of tunnels and cages, before they were transported directly to the arena via eighty vertical shafts relying on a series of elevators and pulleys. According to ancient accounts, it was even possible to rapidly flood the arena, presumably to clean the battlefield ready for the next spectacle.

There were also other ‘secret’ tunnels, some which were used by the emperor to enter and exit the arena (thus not having to move through the dense crowds) and others which are said to have been used to remove the bodies of dead warriors. Despite the wealth of information available, there is still so much to learn about the Colosseum – and with every discovery comes a new appreciation of just how impressive a feat of engineering it is.

One thing we can do thanks to technology (and specifically MassMotion), is replicate how effective the Colosseum would have been in an evacuation scenario. To really up the stakes, we could even compare it to a modern-day icon like The Bird’s Nest Stadium, built as part of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

This is exactly what the TV show Time Scanners (shown on the National Geographic channel) did, and you can see the edited video here. The results, to say the very least, are surprising. What seemed like a grossly unfair comparison in principle actually turned into a jaw-dropping display of Roman ingenuity and engineering.

Despite technology putting more power in our hands than ever before, we can still look to the Romans, who achieved so much without a single megabyte, mouse or modem, for inspiration on creating the impossible.

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