Ten amazing inventions from ancient times

Ten amazing inventions from ancient times

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Dating back thousands of years are numerous examples of ancient technology that leave us awe-struck at the knowledge and wisdom held by people of our past. They were the result of incredible advances in engineering and innovation as new, powerful civilizations emerged and came to dominate the ancient world.  These advances stimulated societies to adopt new ways of living and governance, as well as new ways of understanding their world. However, many ancient inventions were forgotten, lost to the pages of history, only to be re-invented millennia later. Here we feature ten of the best examples of ancient technology and inventions that demonstrate the ingenuity of our ancient ancestors.

1. The ancient invention of the steam engine by the Hero of Alexandria

The ancient invention of the steam engine by the Hero of Alexandria

Heron Alexandrinus, otherwise known as the Hero of Alexandria, was a 1 st century Greek mathematician and engineer who is known as the first inventor of the steam engine.  His steam powered device was called the aeolipile, named after Aiolos, God of the winds. The aeolipile consisted of a sphere positioned in such a way that it could rotate around its axis. Nozzles opposite each other would expel steam and both of the nozzles would generate a combined thrust resulting in torque, causing the sphere to spin around its axis. The rotation force sped up the sphere up to the point where the resistance from traction and air brought it to a stable rotation speed. The steam was created by boiling water under the sphere – the boiler was connected to the rotating sphere through a pair of pipes that at the same time served as pivots for the sphere. The replica of Heron’s machine could rotate at 1,500 rounds per minute with a very low pressure of 1.8 pounds per square inch.  The remarkable device was forgotten and never used properly until 1577, when the steam engine was ‘re-invented’ by the philosopher, astronomer and engineer, Taqu al-Din.

2. Is the Assyrian Nimrud lens the oldest telescope in the world?

Assyrian Nimrud lens the oldest telescope

The Nimrud lens is a 3,000-year-old piece of rock crystal, which was unearthed by Sir John Layard in 1850 at the Assyrian palace of Nimrud, in modern-day Iraq.  The Nimrud lens (also called the Layard lens) is made from natural rock crystal and is a slightly oval in shape.  It was roughly ground, perhaps on a lapidary wheel. It has a focal point about 11 centimetres from the flat side, and a focal length of about 12 cm.  This would make it equivalent to a 3× magnifying glass (combined with another lens, it could achieve much greater magnification). The surface of the lens has twelve cavities that were opened during grinding, which would have contained naptha or some other fluid trapped in the raw crystal.  Since its discovery over a century ago, scientists and historians have debated its use, with some suggesting it was used as a magnifying glass, and others maintaining it was a burning-glass used to start fires by concentrating sunlight. However, prominent Italian professor Giovanni Pettinato proposed the lens was used by the ancient Assyrians as part of a telescope, which would explain how the Assyrians knew so much about astronomy. According to conventional perspectives, the telescope was invented by Dutch spectacle maker, Hans Lippershey in 1608 AD, and Galileo was the first to point it to the sky and use it to study the cosmos. But even Galileo himself noted that the 'ancients' were aware of telescopes long before him. While lenses were around before the Nimrud lens, Pettinato believes this was one of the first to be used in a telescope. 

3. The Oldest Calendar in Scotland

The Oldest Calendar in Scotland

Research carried out last year on an ancient site excavated by the National Trust for Scotland in 2004 revealed that it contained a sophisticated calendar system that is approximately 10,000 years old, making it the oldest calendar ever discovered in the world. The site – at Warren Field, Crathes, Aberdeenshire – contains a 50 metre long row of twelve pits which were created by Stone Age Britons and which were in use from around 8000 BC (the early Mesolithic period) to around 4,000 BC (the early Neolithic). The pits represent the months of the year as well as the lunar phases of the moon. They were formed in a complex arc design in which each lunar month was divided into three roughly ten day weeks – representing the waxing moon, the full moon and the waning moon. It also allowed the observation of the mid-winter sunrise so that the lunar calendar could be recalibrated each year to bring it back in line with the solar year. The entire arc represents a whole year and may also reflect the movements of the moon across the sky.


Thanks, April an interesting read. There is some evidence that could explain where two of these objects may have come from, which predate the hero engine (1) and Antikythera mechanism (2). I'm interested in Minoan technology and there are tantalising artefacts that could explain useful precursors on which the principles were based upon.
1. The Minoans had hot and cold running water to dwellings using a communal system. Hypercourses were used for heating buildings. But they also had hot and cold running water. At some sites this the hot water is from volcanic sources, but this doesn't explain other sites. There is a very weird Minoan casting of a device that looks distinctly like a boiler with two operators. They certainly had the ability to cast metal into sheets and rivet them together (large caldrons were manufactured using this method) into a cylinder that is shown about 3x5m if the operators are to scale, which would explain how they could get hot water to buildings. But there appear to be other controls on the device, they would get steam and may have realised this could be used to perform work. You need to produce a boiler before you can get to an engine, they may have had the boiler a 1000 years before the engine and this knowledge transferred to the Greeks on slow demise of the trading network, through the Mycenaeans or priests of Apollo at Delphi.
2. There is a stone mould for a really interesting device. , to produce castings of a device referred to as a sundial, but this may, in fact, be a calendar to track the passage of days and all manner of celestial occurrences including eclipses, it would put the amazing Antikythera mechanism in context, as it would explain that the great year calendar was well known to the ancients on which the mechanism is based and also the precursor to gears, it uses a notched system to move through days, to then move on a week on completion, the occurrences of interesting events are shown on the out gear.
Devices of Daedalus. My own view is that Daedalus is not a single person, but a position in Minoan society, the modern day equivalent of the engineer, that they exported throughout the trading empire. In the same way, as Minos is not a king, but a military position, commander in chief of the fleet that allowed trade to flourish. It was an incredibly stable maritime empire until the Thera eruption that set the world back a millennium. They had contact with all the best idea of the world, Europe, Asia, Africa, adopting those of interest and re-exporting the best. Metallurgy, jewellery, textiles, architecture, irrigation to improve crop yield, roads for overland networks, the division of labour and specialist, even credit and commercial contracts, with standards through seals, and weights and measures. Much of this is accredited to the Etruscan period but its origin may have its roots in this trading empire. They also had the natural ground lens, crystal windows, flushing toilets, communal sewage system and beautiful art. Wow, if only that blasted volcano hadn't gone off, we'd have been where are today a lot sooner. They were protected by the sea so these ideas could flourish.
For info and debate, making sense of our origins requires a cross disciplinary approach.

Information is amazing.

The original article explaining the use or facts relating to the inventions make fascinating reading. I wouldn't presume to add irrelevant info that will be outdated in two years or less.

Hero of Alexandria’s steam engine was quite nice toy. But not an usable steam engine you can get power out to most purposes. Efficiency would be atrocious even when compared to single expansion piston steam engines. Steam is thrown out while it still has a lot of heat left.  And torque would be quite poor. First real usable steam engine was Newcomen’s engine, and even that was kind of disappointment before James Watt made numerous improvements to it.

Justbod's picture

Fascinating article that i’m sure just hints at what ancient technologies there may once have been.

Thank you – I found the article really interesting and inspiring!


Sculptures, carvings & artwork inspired by a love of history & nature: www.justbod.co.uk





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