Historically Speaking: The Tragedy of Vandalizing the Past

The 20th anniversary of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan reminds us of the imperative of historical preservation

April 15, 2021

Twenty years ago this spring, the Taliban completed their obliteration of Afghanistan’s 1,500-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan. The colossal stone sculptures had survived major assaults in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and the Persian king Nader Afshar. Lacking sufficient firepower, both gave up after partly defacing the monuments.

The Taliban’s methodical destruction recalled the calculated brutality of ancient days. By the time the Romans were finished with Carthage in 146 B.C., the entire city had been reduced to rubble. They were given a taste of their own medicine in 455 A.D. by Genseric, King of the Vandals, who stripped Rome bare in two weeks of systematic looting and destruction.

One of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 1997, before their destruction.

Like other vanquished cities, Rome’s buildings became a source of free material. Emperor Constans II of Byzantium blithely stole the Pantheon’s copper roofing in the mid-17th century; a millennium later, Pope Urban VIII appropriated its bronze girders for Bernini’s baldacchino over the high altar in St. Peter’s Basilica.

When not dismantled, ancient buildings might be repurposed by new owners. Thus Hagia Sophia Cathedral became a mosque after the Ottomans captured Constantinople, and St. Radegund’s Priory was turned into Jesus College at Cambridge University on the orders of King Henry VIII.

The idea that a country’s ancient heritage forms part of its cultural identity took hold in the wake of the French Revolution. Incensed by the Jacobins’ pillaging of churches, Henri Gregoire, the Constitutional Bishop of Blois, coined the term vandalisme. His protest inspired the novelist Victor Hugo’s efforts to save Notre Dame. But the architect chosen for the restoration, Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, added his own touches to the building, including the central spire that fell when the cathedral’s roof burned in 2019, spurring controversy over what to restore. Viollet-le-Duc’s own interpolations set off a fierce debate, led by the English art critic John Ruskin, about what constitutes proper historical preservation.

Ruskin inspired people to rethink society’s relationship with the past. There was uproar in England in 1883 when the London and South Western Railway tried to justify building a rail-track alongside Stonehenge, claiming the ancient site was unused.

Public opinion in the U.S., when aroused, could be equally determined. The first preservation society was started in the 1850s by Ann Pamela Cunningham of South Carolina. Despite being disabled by a riding accident, Cunningham initiated a successful campaign to save George Washington’s Mount Vernon from ruin.

But developers have a way of getting what they want. Not even modernist architect Philip Johnson protesting in front of New York’s Penn Station was able to save the McKim, Mead & White masterpiece in 1963. Two years later, fearing that the world’s architectural treasures were being squandered, retired army colonel James Gray founded the International Fund for Monuments (now the World Monuments Fund). Without the WMF’s campaign in 1996, the deteriorating south side of Ellis Island, gateway for 12 million immigrants, might have been lost to history.

The fight never ends. I still miss the magnificent beaux-arts interior of the old Rizzoli Bookstore on 57th Street in Manhattan. The 109-year-old building was torn down in 2014. Nothing like it will ever be seen again.

Historically Speaking: Overcoming the Labor of Calculation

Inventors tried many times over the centuries to build an effective portable calculator—but no one succeeded until John Merryman.

The Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2019


The world owes a debt of gratitude to Jerry Merryman, who died on Feb. 27 at the age of 86. It was Merryman who, in 1965, worked with two other engineers at Texas Instruments to invent the world’s first pocket calculator. Today we all carry powerful calculators on our smartphones, but Merryman was the first to solve a problem that had plagued mathematicians at least since Gottfried Leibniz, one of the creators of calculus in the 17th century, who observed: “It is unworthy of excellent men to lose hours like slaves in the labor of calculation, which could safely be relegated to anyone else if machines were used.”

In ancient times, the only alternative to mental arithmetic was the abacus, with its simple square frame, wooden rods and movable beads. Most civilizations, including the Romans, Chinese, Indians and Aztecs, had their own version—from counting boards for keeping track of sums to more sophisticated designs that could calculate square roots.

We know of just one counting machine from antiquity that was more complex. The 2nd-century B.C. Antikythera Mechanism, discovered in 1901 in the remains of an ancient Greek shipwreck, was a 30-geared bronze calculator that is believed to have been used to track the movement of the heavens. Despite its ingenious construction, the Antikythera had a limited range of capabilities: It could calculate dates and constellations and little else.

In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci drew up designs for a mechanical calculating device that consisted of 13 “digit-registering” wheels. In 1967, IBM commissioned the Italian scholar and engineer Roberto Guatelli to build a replica based on the sketches. Guatelli believed that Leonardo had invented the first calculator, but other experts disagreed. In any case, it turned out that the metal wheels would have generated so much friction that the frame would probably have caught fire.

Technological advances in clockmaking helped the French mathematician and inventor Blaise Pascal to build the first working mechanical calculator, called the Pascaline, in 1644. It wasn’t a fire hazard, and it could add and subtract. But the Pascaline was very expensive to make, fragile in the extreme, and far too limited to be really useful. Pascal only made 50 in his lifetime, of which less than 10 survive today.

Perhaps the greatest calculator never to see the light of day was designed by Charles Babbage in the early 19th century. He actually designed two machines—the Difference Engine, which could perform arithmetic, and the Analytical Engine, which was theoretically capable of a range of functions from direct multiplication to parallel processing. Ada, Countess of Lovelace, the daughter of the poet Lord Byron, made important contributions to the development of Babbage’s Analytical Engine. According to the historian Walter Isaacson, Lovelace realized that any process based on logical symbols could be used to represent entities other than quantity—the same principle used in modern computing.

Unfortunately, despite many years and thousands of pounds of government funding, Babbage only ever managed to build a small prototype of the Difference Engine. Even for most of the 20th century, his dream of a portable calculator stayed a dream, while the go-to instrument for doing large sums remained the slide rule. It took Merryman’s invention to allow us all to become “excellent men” and leave the labor of calculation to the machines.