Anthropology - Other

Mysteries of Ancient Technology

Steve Lussing's image for:
"Mysteries of Ancient Technology"
Image by: 


Invention seems to be the domain of especially gifted people whose potential appears to have been rather consistent throughout the ages. In my article about Titus Lecretius Carus under the title "Imagination vs. Knowledge" I bring the following to mind, "It is not surprising that even today the majority of people cannot do the calculus, many cannot even do fractions, but there were minds even predating Lucretius' (99 BCE - 55 BCE) who laid the groundwork for the method of integration, for example as found in the Egyptian Moscow papyrus (c. 1800 BCE) or in Archimedes' (c. 287-212 BCE) invention of heuristics which resemble integral calculus."

Some people might be surprised to learn that many technological inventions are ancient history. In fact, the steam engine was actually invented by one Heron of Alexandria (c. 10 AD 70 AD) in Egypt. His design employed a cauldron of boiling water which passed steam through tubular supports into a suspended ball which vented the steam through two pipettes oriented in the same direction along the equatorial. The ball would then rotate using steam jet propulsion. Other inventions of his included the coin operated vending machine (for dispensing holy water), a wind powered organ and a water powered organ, and various tools for measurement. He also authored works describing techniques for mechanical assists and mathematical calculation of surfaces and volumes.

The very earliest of mankind's innovations involve clothing and hygiene. The concept of spinning wool into cloth is so old that it cannot be dated. The earliest known loom-woven cloths date from before 7,000 BCE and that date was arrived at because loom weights used to hold warp threads parallel (a system still in use today in part of Norway) and belonging to the warp-weighted loom were found at Catal Huyuk, an ancient city in Anatolia that dates to that time. Olive oil soap was known to be in use 2,000 BCE. Eyeliner made from ground lead sulfide or antimony sulfide and still used today in parts of the Middle East are commonly found in 4,000 year old tombs. Earth-fired pottery has been dated to about 5,000 BCE and the potter's wheel was invented about 2,400 BCE. The earliest versions of the catapult and the crossbow are each about 2,500 years old.

The common folding stool is over 4,000 years old. Blown glass objects were old news at the time of Christ. The tumbler lock is over 3,000 years old. And astoundingly, archaeologists discovered an ancient battery dating from the Parthian era (250 BCE to CE 250) composed of a clay jar with an asphalt stopper through which an iron rod surrounded by a copper cylinder is fixed. When the jar was filled with an electrolyte, probably vinegar or lemon juice, the battery produced a charge of just over a volt. It was probably used to electroplate metal upon metal.

Music is one of the oldest forms of cultural expression of which we have evidence. The Sumerian bull lyre dates to 3,200 BCE, the Sumerian harp to 2,500 BCE, the ancient Greek tortoise shell harp to 400 BCE. It is of course impossible to determine the date of the first appearance of the drum.

The earliest sundials in the form of obelisks date to 3,500 BCE. The Lighthouse at Alexandria was built about 300 BCE. The earliest known compass originated in China during the Han dynasty (220 BCE). It was constructed of a balanced spoon shaped object made of lodestone. The Chinese further refined the art of compass building by magnetizing needles by rubbing them with magnetite and floating them on water sometime during the early eleventh century.

The oldest counting boards, any type of abacus, are found in Rome and date to 400 BCE. There are versions of abaci unique to almost every culture in history. The Incas had one called the quipu.

The oldest house in the world is constructed of mammoth bones and was probably covered with mammoth hides. It was discovered in Mezhirich near Kiev, in the Ukraine and is dated to 13,000 BCE.

The oldest continuously family-owned and operated company is the Kongo Gumi Construction Company in Japan, founded in 578 and builder of the 1,400 year old Buddhist Shitennoji Temple, which still stands. The company's 40th president was Toshitaka Kongo. Unfortunately, the company folded in 2006, citing excess debt and an unfavorable business climate.

While some things never go out of date, there is yet nothing permanent except change.

More about this author: Steve Lussing

From Around the Web