ANCHORAGE, Alaska — An engineering firm which plans to base itself in Soldotna claims to have solved a mystery from the ancient world, determining that hollow devices dating back to the Roman Empire are measuring instruments.
According to John Ladd, who describes himself as “CEO, Futurist & Inventor” of Roman Systems Engineering, the Romans would mount small objects inside metal dodecahedrons -- 12-sided geometric objects made up of pentagon-shaped sides, each with a hole through it permitting access to the hollow center.
Placing the dodecahedrons in bowls then adding specific amounts of water would yield exact measurements of water displaced by the objects within, allowing small parts to be tested for consistent shaping before use.
While Ladd says displacement measurements would have applications in civilian fields, the most common Roman use would have been military: quality-testing arrowheads and artillery projectiles before use to ensure their accuracy.
“I think their strongest need would have been in the area of projectiles,” Ladd said, noting that bullets have to be tested even today. “Projectiles still demand the ultimate degree of process control.”
In an interview transcript posted on electrical engineering website EEWeb, Ladd says the origins of the breakthrough came during a college project during which he and his team were asked to produce a three-dimensional device to hold objects for testing. They independently selected the dodecahedron over an icosahedron, a 20-sided figure with triangular sides, before seeing its Roman connections in a Wikipedia article.
“In fact, we were unaware of the existence of the Roman dodecahedron and asked how to solve a practical engineering problem,” Ladd said in the interview.
It’s been a remarkable rise for RSE, with Ladd skipping a college course to test the theory in March -- then defending it in June. Fox News even interviewed Ladd about the theory, shortly after running a story suggesting that the Roman dodecahedrons’ purpose would never be unraveled.
Ladd says the dodecahedrons may have been so important to some Roman builders that they chose to be buried with them, accounting for the devices being found in graves as well as other Roman-era sites across Europe.
It’s even possible that the need for 12 measurements of each object -- one with each side of the dodecahedron facing downward -- could have been a factor in the 12 inches contained within a foot, an ancient unit of measure adopted by the Romans and passed to Britain by the Normans.
While the technology is old, Ladd believes modern fluids could give it expanded applications, ranging from measuring the displacement of porous objects to potential uses in data storage and transfer. He’s particularly excited about porous objects, and plans to use a non-reactive fluid called Fluorinert to accurately determine the displacement of objects like pumice blocks or even croutons.
“It doesn’t care if it has line of sight,” Ladd said, explaining that flooding items with Fluorinert permits a deeper assessment than a simple visual examination. “We can go where photons can’t.”
Ladd says he and his wife grew up in Montana, but plan to settle in Soldotna. Once RSE is fully up and running here, the firm plans to hand-assemble a pilot run of 10,000 modern dodecahedrons in Soldotna for use in displacement testing, with tentative plans for mass production after that.
RSE plans to sell a package including a dodecahedron frame along with customized software to interpret the measurements at an initial price of $500 to $1,000, depending on the firm’s final production costs.