We like to think of technological innovation as a gradual, steady and fairly linear process. However, this is not necessarily the case. Archaeological digs around the world reveal that, from time to time, ancient civilizations developed inventions that were decades, if not centuries, ahead of their time.
These inventions are sometimes said to rival or surpass modern science. This too is a misconception. While many ancient super technologies – from Roman concrete to Damascus steel – were once lost, they have since been recreated by today’s researchers. Usually any difficulty in recreating them stems from lack of original instruction rather than an inability to understand the invention itself.
Equally misguided is the idea that ancient civilizations stumbled upon these technologies by accident, or that they were designed by idiosyncratic geniuses who were not representative of their time. Although many of the inventors mentioned in this article were indeed considered geniuses, they cannot and should not be separated from their environment. Their work is not anachronistic, but testifies to the ingenuity and scientific potential of their respective civilizations.
Greek fire: flames that never go out
When the Muslim fleet of the Umayyad Caliphate attempted to besiege the Byzantine city of Constantinople in 674, their ships were set on fire. At first, the Muslims were not alarmed; fire was often used in naval warfare and could be extinguished easily with cloth, earth, or water. This, however, was no ordinary fire. Once lit, it could not be extinguished, and after the entire fleet burned, even the sea itself was set ablaze.
The Umayyad Caliphate met its fate at the hands of a new military invention known as Greek fire, Roman fire, liquid fire, or sea fire, among many other names. No recipe survives, but historians believe it could have involved oil, sulfur or gunpowder. Of the three, oil seems the most likely candidate, as gunpowder did not become readily available in Asia Minor until the 14and century, and sulfur lacked the destructive power described by Arab observers.
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However, what makes Greek fire so impressive is not the chemistry of the fire itself, but the design of the pressure pump the Byzantines used to launch it in the direction of their enemies. As British historian John Haldon explains in an essay titled ““The Greek Fire” revisitedthe researchers are working to recreate a historically accurate pump that could have propelled its contents far enough to be useful in naval battles, where enemy ships can be tens or even hundreds of meters apart.
Antikythera Mechanism: a cosmic clock before Copernicus
The Antikythera Mechanism was discovered off Antikythera, a small Greek island located between Kythera and Crete. Its discovery came in 1901, when divers searching for sea sponges came across a deposit of sunken shipwreck dating back to classical antiquity. The titular gear was incomplete and in poor condition, but appeared to have consisted of some 37 bronze gears stored in a wooden box.
Researchers first hypothesized that the Antikythera Mechanism, which turned out to be over 2,200 years old, worked like an ancient computer. This hypothesis was dismissed as too improbable, to be reaffirmed by more detailed studies beginning in the 1970s. The current consensus holds that the mechanism was a planetary: a model of the solar system that calculates and tracks celestial time.
CT scans reveal the mind-boggling complexity of the craft. A 2021 attempt to replicate the Antikythera Mechanism called it “a genius creation – combining cycles from Babylonian astronomy, mathematics from Plato’s Academy and astronomical theories from ancient Greece”. He could calculate the ecliptic longitudes of the moon and the sun, the phases of the moon, the synodic phases of the planets, the days excluded from the Metonic calendar and the cycle of the Olympiad, among a myriad of other things.
Damascus steel: swords that do not dull
Damascus steel swords originated in the Middle East in the 9and century and were renowned for their appearance as well as their durability, being many times stronger and sharper than Western swords used during the Crusades. Their name, derived from the Arabic word for “water,” refers not only to the Syrian city they hail from, but also to the flowing pattern that adorns their surface. This pattern was created through a unique forging process where small ingots of wootz steel from India, Sri Lanka or Iran were melted with charcoal and cooled at an incredibly slow rate.
The demand for Damascus steel remained high for centuries, but gradually declined as swords were replaced by firearms in armed conflict. around 1850, the secrets of its production process seemed lost.
Interest in swords was revitalized by CS Smith, a steelworker who worked on the Manhattan Project. Unfortunately, Damascus steel can never be authentically recreated because wootz steel is no longer available. Since the 1960s, however, researchers have tried to develop new forging techniques that achieve similar results. This development is still ongoing; a 2018 study says adding small amounts of carbide-forming elements like vanadium(V) is the way to go.
The Houfeng Didong Yi: the world’s first seismoscope
Created almost 2000 years ago, the Houfeng Didong Yi has the honor of being the world’s first seismoscope. Its place of origin was China, a country plagued by earthquakes for as long as its people can remember. Its creator was Zhang Heng, a prominent astronomer, cartographer, mathematician, poet, painter and inventor who lived in the Han dynasty from 78 to 139 AD.
The design of the Houfeng Didong Yi is as functional as it is aesthetic. The mechanism consists of a large decorated copper pot. The pot was fitted with eight tubular projections that were shaped like dragon heads. Under each dragon’s head was placed a copper toad with a large gaping mouth.
“Zhang’s Seismoscope”, a 2009 study in Taiwan explains, “is respected as a landmark invention because it can indicate not only the occurrence of an earthquake but also the direction of its source.” Although primary sources are unclear on how the seismoscope actually worked, the researchers suggest that the vibrations swung a pendulum inside the jar, causing a small ball to be released through a dragon’s head and into the mouth of its corresponding toad, indicating the direction of an earthquake.
Roman concrete: a cement that does not crack
Many ancient Roman architectural projects would not have been possible without Roman concrete. Also known as caementicium opusRoman concrete was a hydraulically setting cement mixture composed of volcanic ash and lime which, in the words of Pliny the Elderbound fragments of rock into “a single mass of stone” and made them “impregnable to the waves and stronger every day”.
The oldest known reference to Roman concrete dates from 25 BC. J.-C. and comes from a manuscript entitled Ten books on architecture, written by the architect and engineer Vitruvius. Vitruvius recommends that builders use volcanic ash from the city of Pozzuoli in Naples, called pozzolan or pulvis puteolanus in Latin. Pozzolan should be mixed with lime in a ratio of 3:1 or 2:1 if the construction is under water.
When Vitruvius wrote his Ten books on architecture, Roman concrete was still considered a novelty and used sparingly. This changed in AD 64, when an urban fire destroyed two-thirds of the imperial capital. As the survivors set out to rebuild, Nero’s building code called for a stronger foundation. The move to Roman concrete – which, in the words of Pliny, does not crack – allowed the construction of architectural projects like the Pantheon, the oldest and largest unreinforced dome in the world.
Baghdad Battery: a rudimentary taser (for pain relief)
Archaeologists use the term “Baghdad Battery” to refer to a ceramic pot, copper tube and iron rod that was found in Iraq near what was once the capital of the Parthian Empire and the Later Sasanian. They believe the three separate objects when put together to create a single device. The purpose of this device, which appears to have been able to generate electricity, remains unclear.
Wilhelm König, director of the Iraqi Antiquities Department – the same organization whose employees first discovered the battery – originally theorized that it was used as a galvanic cell to galvanize objects. This theory, although widely accepted when first published, does not hold because no electrodeposited objects from the same period and region have been discovered so far.
In 1993, Paul Keyser of the University of Alberta in Edmonton formulated a different hypothesis, less anachronistic and therefore more plausible. The battery, he argued, did not function as a galvanic cell but as a local painkiller that could relieve pain by transmitting an electrical charge. In doing so, it would have replaced the electric fish, which in Greco-Roman societies was sometimes used to treat headaches, gout, and other ailments.