In a TED interview, Elon Musk stated:

People are mistaken when they think that technology just automatically improves. It does not automatically improve. It only improves if a lot of people work very hard to make it better, and actually it will, I think, by itself degrade, actually. You look at great civilizations like Ancient Egypt, and they were able to make the pyramids, and they forgot how to do that. And then the Romans, they built these incredible aqueducts. They forgot how to do it.

It makes sense that if people stop focusing on some goal, the knowledge of how it is achieved will become lost or at least uncommon. And the ancient Egyptians did stop building pyramids at some point; given the speculation about construction techniques, it's fair to say that those methods were lost after a certain time. My question is about the Roman aqueducts. The Wikipedia article on this topic says:

During the Renaissance, the standing remains of the city's massive masonry aqueducts inspired architects, engineers and their patrons; Pope Nicholas V renovated the main channels of the Roman Aqua Virgo in 1453. Many aqueducts in Rome's former empire were kept in good repair. The 15th-century rebuilding of an aqueduct at Segovia in Spain shows advances on the Pont du Gard by using fewer arches of greater height, and so greater economy in its use of the raw materials. The skill in building aqueducts was not lost, especially of the smaller, more modest channels used to supply water wheels.

Was the knowledge of how aqueducts were made actually lost at some point in that part of the world? I'm not sure if it was lost and then reinvented during the Renaissance, or if there was continuity in the passing of the knowledge.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jamiec Jun 26 '20 at 16:17

The Romans built the aqueducts -- as well as bridges, piers, and colossal buildings -- out of concrete. Stone and brick were usually just exterior casings for the concrete structural core. And the secret of super-durable Roman concrete was indeed lost for centuries.

Modern concrete uses a paste mixture of water and Portland cement (a fine powder made from limestone & clay) to bind together sand and/or small stones. However, it degrades within decades. Roman concrete used a mix of volcanic ash and lime for their cement - a fact rediscovered only recently. This mixture is stronger than modern cement and lasts much longer. In addition, the source of the volcanic ash matters to the performance of the concrete. So does the environment in which the concrete is used.

In the case of concrete piers, the secrets of Roman concrete durability is all about seawater interacting with the ash. Volcanic ash commonly contains a silicate mineral called phillipsite, which contains aluminum. Concrete containing this mineral, when immersed in seawater, becomes more alkaline, and this in turn appears to cause microscopic aluminium tobermorite crystals - a rare mineral - to grow from the phillipsite. The aluminum crystals flex under stress and wave action instead of cracking. And the longer the concrete sits under seawater, the more of this aluminum there is to resist stress and make the concrete stronger. The same process also self-heals small cracks before they become large.

See this Nature article for more information - https://www.nature.com/news/seawater-is-the-secret-to-long-lasting-roman-concrete-1.22231 .

For freshwater aqueduct construction, the concrete chemistry is less clear. We know from Roman repair records that aqueduct repairs were made with concrete and then water was allowed to return to the pipeline before the concrete cured, which implies it cured under water. Modern concrete made with Portland cement can also cure under water, but if too much water enters the cement, it will be weakened. This was not the case with Roman concrete. Perhaps the use of volcanic ash made the concrete sufficiently more durable than Portland cement for aqueduct use, even in the absence of seawater?

If anyone can point to some research on this point, I'd love to hear more.

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    Well that, I guess, but also the romans didn't use steel reinforced concrete but rather elected to build extremely massive structures with concrete. The steel bits in reinforced concrete will eventually corrode, weakening the structure. In exchange, it's more flexible in terms of the shapes you can make with it and is significantly stronger while using less material. – Cubic Jun 22 '20 at 17:37
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    So in conclusion, if I am correct, the knowledge when using salt water and volcano ash was not lost, but when using fresh water, it was? Or is it better to say that the knowledge was not lost - the key was never so much the knowledge, as the materials? – Charlie Crown Jun 22 '20 at 23:18
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    I think the point is, knowledge of concrete was lost, and concrete was the basis of lots of Roman construction. So the answer to the original question is: "Yes, probably". It depends if you want to skew the question - I could build an aqueduct out of modern poly-pipe, but that's not using Roman techniques. – Kingsley Jun 23 '20 at 0:42
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    @CharlieCrown The two often come together. When the access to the raw materials (a very specific kind of volcanic ash) was lost, the knowledge how to use it was eventually lost as well. The same thing is thought to have happened with Damascus steel. Heck, the same thing probably ended the bronze age - bronze was much better than early iron/steel, but getting access to the raw materials usually required extensive trade networks; when those failed, bronze was no longer a viable option. – Luaan Jun 23 '20 at 6:22
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    @CharlieCrown It was lost. What is quoted above is very recent knowledge published in 2017. Before reading this answer I still thought we didn't know how it worked because I grew up reading about the fact that we don't/didn't know how it worked – slebetman Jun 23 '20 at 10:12

The knowledge of how to build aqueducts was not lost. See Vitruvius and Frontinus among other texts. Some few techniques that were more practical knowledge among workers might not have been written down, though.

Musk is totally wrong here. The real reason people after the Romans didn't build aqueducts is not that they couldn't. It's because if you don't build cities with populations in the hundreds of thousands in semi-arid areas, you don't need aqueducts to supply them with water.

If you're an Egyptian and your religion no longer requires you to build gigantic tombs for your dead Pharoahs, you don't build them. Not because you CAN'T build them, but because you have better things to do. For instance, you might construct an impressive lighthouse at your main harbor: Lighthouse of Alexandria. Likewise, if you're a later Roman, you might build an impressive Christian church called Hagia Sophia rather than an aqueduct.

PS: Perhaps it should also be noted that when we build similar things today (or in times past), we usually don't do it the same way the Romans or Egyptians did, because we have invented better ways and have different purposes. For instance, the California Aqueduct is far larger than anything the Romans built. (And is only a small part of the California water system.)

Nor is this just a modern thing. Consider the French Canal du Midi, built in the 17th century, a project the Romans thought of but never did. Likewise the canal systems of Britain & other European countries were much larger in scale than the Roman aqueducts, but constructed for different purposes.

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    Not to mention that aquaducts are massive weak spots if you don't have control over the land. Much of Europe after the fall of Rome turned to decentralisation, and building keeps that could outlast any invaders. Having an easily blocked, damaged or poisoned (!) aquaduct supply the water would be stupid. Many of the things Europe "lost" after the empire fall apart were the same way - e.g. no more grain supply from North Africa, much fewer slaves, land redistribution, different climate with limited food trade... – Luaan Jun 23 '20 at 6:26
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    While there may be valid reasons for not building pyramids, we no longer can, irregardless of why we stopped. Isn't that the point of the quote? – Charlie Crown Jun 23 '20 at 6:35
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    @CharlieCrown Are you sure we cannot? Perhaps we are just not willing to spend the tremendous effort? – Suma Jun 23 '20 at 7:36
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    We certainly can, just not like the Egyptians did it, because we don't know how they did it. We do have 101 guesses though. – Charlie Crown Jun 23 '20 at 7:37
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    There's also politics involved in massive projects like these. Consider that in the 19th and early 20th centuries we built massive railways, subway systems, and bridges, but now they're falling into disrepair and we don't have the political capital to fund similar infrastructure projects. – Barmar Jun 23 '20 at 15:40

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