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Ancient Innovations That Were Well Ahead of their Time

When we think about ancient civilizations that existed thousands of years ago, we imagine a much more primitive way of life. People didn’t have access to the kind of basic amenities that many of us benefit from today such as electricity, machinery, and state of the art plumbing; even ancient theaters of war looked different with nary a superweapon in sight. 

But in actuality, ancient civilizations were way more advanced than we think, to the extent that we fail to appreciate the radical innovations they managed to come up with before such things became the standard. You can’t help but admire these achievements when taking into account the periods they appeared in and the limits at the time. From thousands of years ago, here are six ancient innovations that were well ahead of their time.

WATER ALARM CLOCK

Water Clock: Reconstruction of a clay original of the late 5th cent. B.C. Ancient Agora Museum in Athens.By Marsyas, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Today, sleep experts estimate there are around 85 percent of people who use an alarm clock to wake up in the morning, so chances are you probably have an alarm on your mobile device or an old-fashioned one that rouses you out of bed every day. 

According to experts, the earliest known alarm clock traces back to the 4th century BC in Ancient Greece and the man behind it happened to be one of the world’s most well-known philosophers: Plato. Supposedly fed up with students frequently arriving late to the academy where he taught as a result of oversleeping, Plato made a few modifications to what was already an impressive invention of the ancient world, the water clock, in an attempt to keep his students from snoozing the day away. 

Water clocks measured time by changes in the height of water in a container, which funneled slowly out of a tiny hole at the bottom into another container below. What Plato did was add another set of containers to the bottom of a water clock so that once water trickled down and filled up those containers, it would set off what’s believed to have sounded like a whistling kettle – which has got to be the loudest and most startling way to wake up. 

Here’s what’s amazing about it: Plato came up with the idea long before mass-produced alarm clocks came about in the 1870s. Oh yeah, and he did it all seemingly for the simple and somewhat egotistical reason that he felt his lectures were too important to miss, but I guess his motives look a lot less selfish when you consider the impact of his achievement.

HOUFENG DIDONG YI

HOUFENG DIDONG YI
HOUFENG DIDONG YI.By Kowloonese, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The human race has long grappled with natural disasters and, in an attempt to reduce their potentially devastating impact on communities, sought to learn more about them. Today, scientists use devices called seismographs to measure and record earthquakes. Moreover, we have the Richter scale to help make use of the data. These tools helped seismologists measure the largest one on record, an earthquake scoring a magnitude of 9.5 that occurred in Southern Chile on May 22, 1960. For a comparison, the seismic energy resulting from the earthquake was 20,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. As a result of the tragic disaster, two million people were homeless, another 3,000 suffered injuries, and approximately 1,655 people died.

Long before the massive earthquake rocked southern Chile, from 206 BC to 220 AD, people were already experimenting with ways to detect earthquakes. Called the golden age of China, the Han dynasty produced several remarkable innovations such as ship rudders, wheelbarrows, high quality writing paper and, remarkably, earthquake detection devices.

Believed to be the first recorded seismoscope in history, the Houfeng Didong Yi could detect earthquakes hundreds of kilometers away. Shaped like a large urn, the device was about 2 meters in diameter and had 8 dragon heads circling around the top of it. Below each dragon head were bronze figures fashioned to look like toads with wide-open mouths. Each dragon head contained a bronze ball in its mouth, so that when the device picked up an earthquake from far away, the dragon head facing the source of the epicenter would drop its ball into the toad’s mouth below. As a result, the device told you whether an earthquake occurred and the direction from which it originated. 

Apparently the device had success early on when it indicated that an earthquake had occurred to the east. Sure enough, days later, a rider traveling from that region arrived to verify the device’s findings were true. Plus, all functions aside, the device looks insanely cool and probably seconded as an eye-catching accent piece and conversation starter at parties. 

AUTOMATIC DOORS

automatic door
Automatic Door with Bar.By Scott Brody, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

These days, it’s easy to take modern technology like automatic doors for granted, which slide open whenever you walk into a supermarket or bank. You don’t even really have to worry about walking into a glass door that fails to open – although the threat of injury very much exists. After all, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Administration reports that more than 50,000 people suffer from automatic door and garage door injuries every year, so be careful out there folks.

The point is, you probably haven’t considered how long automatic doors have been around. If you had to wager a guess, you’d probably say a hundred years, when in fact there actually existed an automatic door system – albeit a very crude one – thousands of years before in ancient Greece. The man behind it, Heron of Alexandria, was a Greek mathematician and inventor from the 1st century AD who, along with writing 13 books on various subjects, designed several mechanical devices such as vending machines, steam-engines, and an automatic door opener with the aim of giving temples  a “mystical” feel.

While today’s automatic doors use sensors and electricity to operate, Heron of Alexandria’s doors worked a little differently. Whenever an altar for burning was lit, the heat from the fire would funnel down through a tube into a vat of water underground. Once the vat of water heated, expansion would force the water through another separate tube, which filled up a bucket with water. Attached to the bucket’s handle was a rope, which looped through poles controlling the doors, and had a weight attached to the other end. As the bucket filled up with water, the rope around the poles tightened, rotating the spindles to open the doors. And here’s the really cool part: when the altar’s fire went out, the water siphoned back into the vat and shut the temple doors again.

Heron of Alexandria’s doors may have depended on several moving pieces to function properly, but it existed nearly 2,000 years before two American engineers, Horace H. Raymond and Sheldon S. Roby, designed an optical device for opening doors in 1931 – which would become the early versions of automatic doors that we’re all familiar with today. 

FLUSHING TOILETS

flushing toilet
Flushing toilet.By Jarlhelm, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

It may not be glamorous, but this next ancient innovation tackled a problem that’s been plaguing humans since the very beginning. When human waste isn’t disposed of properly, people risk exposure to pathogens, which can cause all sorts of health problems. The Greeks must have recognized this problem early on, a problem that continues to still affect 2.6 billion people in the world today who still lack ideal sanitation methods, leading to more than 200 million tons of human waste going untreated every year.

While the Mesopotamians had early and rather primitive examples of toilets – which were essentially ceramic cylinders with 1 meter openings placed in pits about 4.5 meters deep – it was the Minoans living on the island of Crete who introduced the ingenious flushing method.

Traced back to a palace in Knossos, the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete, is what experts believe is the first evidence of a toilet that uses water to wash waste down into a sewer system. The flushing toilet is described as having large earthenware pans that are hooked up to a water supply with terra cotta pipes. Considering that the Greeks constructed the Palace of Knossos around 1,700 BC, this forward-thinking approach to sanitation well preceded anything in Europe until about the 16th century. 

ANTIKTHERA MECHANISM

The Antikythera Mechanism.By Tilemahos Efthimiadis, is licensed under CC-BY

The Antikythera Mechanism – or what’s been called the world’s first computer – boasts an advanced level of technology that far surpasses anything else on the list. Coming out of ancient Greece, researchers claim that the Antikythera Mechanism was 1,000 years ahead of its time. And, if the device’s metal gear technology isn’t enough to garner interest, the background surrounding its discovery could very well make for a compelling adventure movie.

The history behind it goes as follows: In 1900, three divers came across a shipwreck 150 feet below the surface in the Aegean Sea off the coast of the Greek island Antikythera. Soon after its discovery, an expedition was launched to recover various artifacts from the shipwreck including marble, pottery, glassware, jewelry, coins, and a mysterious wooden box. The expedition wasn’t without its causalities, though, for in the summer of 1901, one diver lost his life and two others became paralyzed.

Some experts believe the mechanism itself – which is about as large as a shoebox and originally made up of at least 30 interlocking bronze gears – dates as far back as 70 BC. With a handle placed on the side of the box, users could turn the knob to operate the device, which experts claim could track the lunar calendar, reveal the timing of eclipses, and even chart the movement of celestial bodies such as the moon.

Upon its discovery, experts found that the mechanism was composed of 82 fragments, four of which contained gears. The largest gear is 14 centimeters in diameter and originally had 223 teeth. Perhaps the most shocking revelation of all, however, is that the mechanism itself went largely under the radar until 1951 when physicist and historian Derek de Solla Price started taking an interest in it. Compared to jewelry and other artifacts retrieved from the shipwreck, a small wooden box must have looked pretty insignificant. 

GREEK FIRE

In contrast to other innovations we’ve detailed, which are mostly everyday objects and scientific instruments, Greek Fire served a much different purpose: it was an incendiary weapon of warfare that’s been compared to modern napalm, which arrived much later in 1942.

Developed by the Byzantine Empire and first used in 678 AD, Greek Fire offered an edge in both land and sea battles, as it created a “sticky” fire that attached to everything and was very difficult to stop (not even water could put it out). Serving as a technological advantage for the Byzantines and Constantinople, it remained a dominant weapon for more than 700 years.

Now, you might think that experts today know everything there is to know about this ancient weapon, but the truth is there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding Greek Fire. The Byzantines didn’t want their enemies to harness this power out of fear that it would be used against them, so the recipe was a closely guarded secret that was passed down from Emperor to Emperor. Experts don’t know what all went into producing Greek Fire, but they suspect the chief ingredients were light petroleum or naphtha and may have contained a combination of others such as sulfur, bitumen, lime, and cedar resin. 

Though when you really stop and think about it, maybe it’s not such a bad thing that Greek Fire’s secret recipe was lost forever considering it’s a dangerous and highly-combustible weapon. 

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