Today let's set aside the science and technology and think about art. Ever see pictures like the one above of ancient Roman ruins with small figures in 1700s-style clothes crawling around on the stone blocks?
The picture you saw was probably an etching by Italian artist and architect Giovanni Piranesi (1720-1778). Born the son of a stonemason in Venice, his family recognized early that Piranesi had artistic talent. He studied with his uncle, an architectural engineer, and learned the basics of construction. Then at age 20, Piranesi went to Rome as a draftsman for the Venetian ambassador. While there, he learned the art of etching on copper plates.
However, Piranesi was unable to find steady work as an architect. The Roman ruins all around him inspired Piranesi to drew a series of imaginary buildings, which he released as a book, but it didn't sell. He returned to Venice and worked for a local studio, then went back to Rome in 1745, where he acted as a seller and agent for other artists and their works. This must have been difficult, considering he couldn't sell his own art.
Despite these setbacks, Piranesi persisted. And equally important, he didn't rely on his innate talent--he practiced constantly.
He drew 16 imaginary prisons, that strangely sold well, probably due to their sheer imagination and menace. But it was when Piranesi began to draw the ruins of ancient Rome that he found his muse. During the Dark Ages, the shrinking population of Rome had looted the stone blocks of earlier buildings for construction, which made it hard for artists to envision the buildings 700 years later. However, Piranesi used his background in engineering to understand the ancient structures. The project took him a decade, but his Views of Rome was hugely successful.
Piranesi's art inspired people throughout Europe and around the world, including the Americas. With the help of his etchings and written works, people formed an appreciation of the architecture of the ancient world, an influence that is seen to this day in our public buildings.
(Sources: Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, Gardner's Art Through the Ages, and YourDictionary.com, pic from www2.siba.fi)