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Ancient Inventions That Feel Like Modern Ones

Tim Brinkhof looks at inextinguishable Greek fire and the 2000-year-old Chinese seismograph, among other wonders

New York City-based journalist Tim Brinkhof opens a window into the past on conceptually advanced technology from centuries ago or even ancient times. Take “Greek fire,” for example, that could set both enemy ships and the sea around them ablaze in an inextinguishable fire: Constantinople used it to sink the fleet of the Ummayid Caliphate in 678.

The now-lost recipe probably involved petroleum, sulfur, or gunpowder.

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 the British historian John Haldon discusses in an essay titled “‘Greek Fire’ Revisited,” researchers struggle to recreate an historically accurate pump that could have propelled its content far enough to be of any use during naval battles, where enemy ships may be dozens or even hundreds of meters removed from one another.

Tim Brinkhof, “Ancient technology that was centuries ahead of its time” at Big Think (May 19, 2022)

In his informative essay, he also addresses the antikythera, Damascus steel, Roman cement, and the Baghdad battery that delivered an electrical charge.

Perhaps the most remarkable invention he discusses is the 2000-year-old Houfeng Didong Yi, the world’s first seismoscope:

Its creator was Zhang Heng, a distinguished astronomer, cartographer, mathematician, poet, painter, and inventor who lived under the Han Dynasty from 78 to 139 AD.

“Zhang’s seismoscope,” one 2009 study from Taiwan explains, “is respected as a milestone invention since it can indicate not only the occurrence of an earthquake but also the direction to its source.” While primary sources are unclear as to how the seismoscope actually worked, researchers suggest that vibrations caused a pendulum inside the pot to swing, causing a small ball to release through a dragon head and into the mouth of its corresponding toad, indicating the direction of an earthquake.

Tim Brinkhof, “Ancient technology that was centuries ahead of its time” at Big Think (May 19, 2022)

Ancient technology was not handicapped by lack of human imagination but by lack of reliable sources of power other than human and animal labor and the management of wind, water, and fire. When power shortages were not an issue, our ancestors turned out remarkable inventions.

You may also wish to read: Before digital: The world’s most amazing windup toys Before electronics, there was mechanics — and it’s amazing what human ingenuity can do with a simple windup mechanism. The development of clockwork centuries ago spurred clockmakers in Europe and Asia to develop elaborate automatons for amusement. Many have survived. Enjoy!

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Ancient Inventions That Feel Like Modern Ones