The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts

Review by Andrew Robinson.

All academics would presumably regard writing as one of the world’s great inventions, perhaps even the greatest invention. Philologist Silvia Ferrara certainly does. An expert on the undeciphered Cypro-Minoan script, she is the founder of a research group focused on the invention of writing, INSCRIBE (Invention of Scripts and their Beginnings). It organises lectures by worldwide scholars on writing that ranges from the four ancient scripts widely accepted to be of independent origin – Chinese characters, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mayan glyphs, and Mesopotamian cuneiform – to undeciphered scripts such as the Indus script of Pakistan/India, the Isthmian script of Mesoamerica, Linear A of the eastern Mediterranean, Rongorongo of Easter Island, and the notoriously unique Phaistos Disc of Crete. All of these receive attention in The Greatest Invention, her intellectually stimulating, chattily written survey of the invention and significance of writing in both the ancient and modern world, translated from its original Italian edition.

But, as Ferrara notes at the end, visitors to the Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm do not agree with this academic verdict. Asked to rank the 100 most important inventions in history, adults voted for the wheel, followed by electricity, the telephone, and the computer, with the printing press at position 18. Writing was relegated to position 30 by these adults and 38 by children between ages 11 and 12. ‘Writing sits just beneath the zipper, and well beneath – wait for it – the stove. At least it beat the vacuum cleaner.’ And yet computers, not to mention the printing press, of course depend on writing.

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates – as quoted in Plato’s Phaedrus – pinpointed our long-time ambivalence towards writing, as Ferrara also notes. He spoke of the Egyptian god Thoth, the supposed inventor of writing, who came to see the king seeking royal blessing on his enlightening hieroglyphic invention. The king, however, told Thoth: ‘You, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite to that they really possess… You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant.’

In a 21st-century world drenched with written information and surrounded by information technologies of astonishing speed, these words have a distinctly contemporary ring. Ferrara to some extent sympathises. ‘True list-o-holics’, such as herself, ‘write exclusively by hand – making lists on the computer is like studying on Wikipedia: nothing sticks.’

Graphic skills have always played a key part in decipherment: witness the ancient Egyptian decipherment work of both Thomas Young and his rival Jean-François Champollion. The book’s strongest section is probably its discussion of decipherment. Here, Ferrara deals in some depth with Linear B and its pioneering 1940s analysis by classicist Alice Kober (an inspiration for INSCRIBE) before her premature death in 1950, followed by architect Michael Ventris’ breakthrough in 1952 and his subsequent collaboration with classicist John Chadwick (who graded the young Ferrara’s written examination on Linear B just before his death in 1998). In this part, enough script extracts are illustrated for the reader to follow the argument in detail, unlike in some other chapters. This chapter also discusses at least some of the key Linear B scholars by name, unlike in the vast majority of other chapters, where key modern scholars are left unaccountably uncredited: for example, Egyptian archaeologist Günther Dreyer and Indus philologist Asko Parpola. Such omissions perhaps reflect the author’s deeply held – and no doubt valid – belief, based on her work with Cypro-Minoan, that future decipherments will depend on teamwork not solitary scholarship.

The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts, Silvia Ferrara, Picador, Hardback, £20, ISBN 978-1529064759.