Tag Archives: technology


I’m going to pull a ‘Well, akshually’ and tell you the Phoenician alphabet isn’t quite an alphabet. It’s an abjad. An abjad has consonants but no vowels—no A, E, I, O, U or sometimes Y. You were expected to know how words are pronounced and supply the vowels yourself when you read something written in the Phoenician system.

The word ‘abjad’ comes from smooshing together the first four letters of the Arabic alphabet: alif, bā’, jīm, and dāl.

Pointless rambling for today: There’s a tv show from the 1970s set in the 1950s called Laverne & Shirley. They’re 2 working-class girls from Brooklyn, New York City and speak like Brooklyners. I saw a bit (I can’t find a clip, sorry) where one of the girls is talking about her friend ‘Sheldn’—she pronounces it just that way. It fits with her accent; that’s the way they tawk in Brookln. The punchline: his name really is Sheldn; the ‘o’ was accidentally left out on his birth certificate.

Wikipedia says the Arabic alphabet is the result of the Phoenician alphabet evolving in the Near East, where it took a few different turns from ours in the West. Scroll down to look at the chart.

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A win for the shmos

monopoly (noun)
mo·​nop·​o·​ly | \ mə-ˈnä-p(ə-)lē
1 : exclusive ownership through legal privilege, command of supply, or concerted action
2 : exclusive possession or control

By the way, this is the beauty of the free market. The Egyptian scribes weren’t about to change hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics was job security. Hieroglyphics could be read or written by the scribes only—scribes were an elite class because hieroglyphics is so difficult. The scribes controlled who got to read or write. The scribes had a monopoly. But the Phoenician traders had a big-time need for an efficient writing system. A new technology—the alphabet—was invented, the traders enthusiastically adopted it, and so the scribes’ monopoly was busted up.

Here’s homework (yay!): can you think of a communications technology today that’s owned and closely guarded by a small handful of people? What would happen if someone—maybe you—invented a simple, accessible different technology to replace it?


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Canaanite turquoise miners fool around with hieroglyphics during lunch break

My pals (and Western Civ User’s Guide Irregulars) Ilene L and Jeffrey K each sent me a link to this Nova series on PBS about the origins of the alphabet—in it, archaeologist Orly Goldwasser asserts that a group of Canaanite turquoise miners working in Egypt were fooling around with hieroglyphics and almost-by-accident invented the alphabet. I think it’s a compelling theory—that’s exactly how a creative mind works: by fooling around. Okay so far. If that’s how it happened, their invention would still need to be promoted, spread far-and-wide, made popular. How do you do that?

The beautiful top drawing of an ox head was drawn by an expert drawer. Under that is an ox head as the Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol Aleph. Under that is a pathetic attempt at drawing ox heads by some ham-fisted Canaanite turquoise miner. At the bottom is our letter A.

The Phoenician traders and all their customers needed an efficient writing system to keep business records. The alphabet turned out to be the writing system they needed. The Phoenician trade routes were a communications network—like social media today but without the kitten photos. Those sea-captains visited every port around the Mediterranean Sea. Once the Phoenicians started using the alphabet, everybody started using the alphabet.

And how did the Canaanite miners get their invention to Phoenician sea-captains? You kids who go to Sunday school and Hebrew school knew this one already. Look in the back of your study bibles at the map—the Phoenician cities Sidon, Byblos and Tyre are in the Land of Canaan. Canaanites = Phoenicians.

Very good article here: https://barzilaiendan.com/2012/06/08/cine-a-inventat-alfabetul/

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Copper and Tin

Phoenician trade routes

Speaking of copper, let’s take a minute to appreciate that around the Mediterranean, people had stopped making weapons and tools out of stone and had switched over to copper. There was lots of copper to be mined in Cyprus (pronounced KI-proos). You dig up rocks that have copper ore in them and heat ‘em in a blast furnace until the metal oozes out. Copper is a whole lot easier to make things out of than stone. Its only drawback: it’s not the hardest metal and copper blades need to be sharpened constantly. Copper is soft enough that kids put pennies on railroad tracks and a train’s wheels will smoosh ‘em out. YOU MUST NEVER DO THIS.

The Phoenicians were zipping all around the Mediterranean Sea, buying and selling stuff. Eventually one of those sea-captains got brave enough to head out into the Atlantic Ocean and up north to the British Isles. You know what kind of metal they mine in southern England? Tin. So the Phoenicians brought tin back to the Mediterranean and some genius discovered if you combine molten tin and molten copper you get a new, stronger alloy—bronze. That discovery kicked off the Bronze Age.


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Putting the pot in Mesopotamia

Sumerian pots 4,500 bc

“Clay is a form of soil made up of very small particles of aluminum silicate created by the chemical weathering of rock.”

In the mountains of Turkey, melting snow turned to water that coursed over granite rocks and wore away at them. Teeny-tiny mineral particles were carried by the water down, down from the mountains and eventually into river- and stream-beds in the Tigris-Euphates valley. Over a long time, those particles became clay. You can dig clay out of the ground and make stuff from it, like pots. Clay is what they call plastic: you can form it into different shapes. Clay can be fired—heated at a really high temperature—to become hard and impervious to water. When they dig up ancient sites where people lived, archæologists find pieces of pottery that is thousands of years old.


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Feedback loop

A cesium atom oscillates 9,192,631,770 times every second. That never changes.

What does change is the atoms’ energy state. The excited cesium atoms bounce off the detector every time the microwaves hit the same frequency as the atoms’ oscillations. The detector sends a signal to the microwave resonator, so that the microwave frequency is adjusted to sync better with the atoms. This is called a feedback loop. The detector sends a signal, the signal adjusts the microwave frequency, the microwaves excite the atoms, the atoms bounce off the detector, the detector sends a signal, the signal adjusts the microwave frequency, the microwaves excite the atoms…over and over and over. The time between each signal is exactly one second. No gears, no moving parts to oil, nothing mechanical.

That’s it! That’s how the atomic clock works. Thanks for sticking with me for an entire week on this. Finally, we can get on with our lives!

As with my explanation of the liquid crystal display, this is a simplification. I left out a lot of stuff. It’s the idea, the principle, that I was interested in explaining. Luckily for you, here are links to click on if you’d like more exact, in-depth info about atomic clocks.



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Hail, Cæsium

Here’s something else about atoms: they vibrate, just like a quartz crystal, but you don’t need to zap them with electricity. An atom vibrates on its own at a steady, predictable rate. Incredibly steady, even.



No-see-ums are annoying bugs. Cesium is an element.

Some of the best atoms for vibrating steadily are the ones that make up the element cesium (SEE zee uhm)—that’s Cs on your periodic table. Cesium is kind of rare and its melting point is room temperature. The cesium atom has only one electron circling its nucleus. The cesium atom vibrates 9,192,631,770 times every second.

Yeah, yeah, we pronounce it SEE zee uhm even though it’s properly spelled caesium or cæsium which means it ought to be pronounced KY zee uhm because the a makes it a hard c but we pronounce cæsar SEE zur instead of KY zar so what are you gonna do. Option-apostrophe for you typography nerds https://www.dictionary.com/browse/caesium

I’m still processing all this info, gang. The atomic clock is still a mystery to me. Thanks for holding.

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Just a second

Before I got side-tracked into digital clocks and watches, we were talking about satellites and the Global Positioning System. I mentioned that the satellites that send us navigational signals need to have an incredibly accurate clock aboard. Even a second’s difference in time between satellites’ clocks would change significantly your GPS data—and give you the wrong location.

So you’re thinking, “Well, Manders, those quartz crystal clocks lose or gain only 15 seconds a month. That seems pretty accurate to me. How you gonna improve on a system that measures 32,768 oscillations per second? How you gonna do that? How?”

To which I reply, with a rueful smile, “My friend, there is another clock yet to come, whose sandals the quartz crystal clock isn’t fit to lace. I speak of a clock that loses only one second every 100 million years!”


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32,768 oscillations per second

When you hit a tuning fork against something it vibrates, giving a specific musical note.

We learned that a digital clock is regulated by measuring how many times a quartz crystal oscillates per second—32,768 times. How does it count all those vibrations so quickly? Here’s how: the crystal is purposely cut with a laser to exactly the size and shape (the shape of a tuning fork) that will produce 32,768 oscillations in a second, then stop.* The electric circuit zaps the crystal with electricity, which makes the crystal vibrate until it returns to its original shape. When the vibrating stops, exactly one second has passed. The stopped vibrations trigger the circuit to move the second hand and give the crystal another zap.

The same principle applies in animated entertainment for children. The mouse hits the cat, who oscillates for a second, then resumes his former shape.

Here’s how a tuning fork works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hW-igtIn3A8

Basics of LC oscillators and their measurement


* “Because 32768Hz can be so conveniently divided to give a 1 second pulse, it is a very popular size for it to be cut to. Manufacturers can bang them out and be sure they will sell.” https://www.quora.com/Why-does-Quartz-vibrate-exactly-32768-2-15-times-per-second

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I’m clicking on all 4 cylinders this morning

Why don’t we drive steam cars today? What happened?

In a steam engine, a burner heats water in a boiler to create steam which pushes a piston in a cylinder. The burner and boiler are outside of the cylinder, so we say a steam engine is an external combustion engine.

A real simple diagram of 4 pistons pushing a drive shaft around.

What if you could put the heat and fuel inside the cylinder? That would be an internal combustion engine. Instead of just one, the internal combustion engine has several cylinders with moving pistons. Each cylinder gets a squirt of air and gasoline injected into it. As each cylinder connects with a spark plug, a spark ignites the gas and makes a little explosion. The explosion pushes the piston. The piston pushes a drive shaft. The drive shaft turns a car’s wheels.

Whew! Complicated, huh? But it works great.

This is cool. A rotary engine—https://twitter.com/intent/like?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1084506431850713095%7Ctwgr%5E&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.motorbiscuit.com%2Fthe-interesting-history-of-the-internal-combustion-engine%2F&tweet_id=1084506431850713095

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