Ancient Inventions That Were Centuries Ahead of Their Time

We live in an age where technology often surpasses our wildest dreams. But did you know that our ancestors invented visionary devices that seem more modern than ancient — an earthquake detector, a primitive computer, a death ray, a battery, a corrective lens…their ingenuity knew no bounds.

Antikythera Mechanism

In 1901, a group of sponge divers came across a Roman-era shipwreck off Antikythera Island in the Aegean Sea. It turned out to be an incredibly dangerous dive. One diver died, and the crushing pressure paralyzed two more.

However, it was not all in vain. The recovery of the shipwreck bore exciting archaeological finds. There were bronze and marble statues, some minor artifacts, and a peculiar object about the size of a thick book. This mysterious object turned out to be one of the most intriguing discoveries ever found in Greece. 

Researchers named the object the Antikythera Mechanism. It is the world’s first example of an analog computer. It was possibly used in a temple or academy to calculate planetary positions, to predict astronomical events, and to track important dates like the Panhellenic or Olympic Games.

Archeologists dated it from the first or second century BC. Made of bronze, and likely carried in a wooden box, it had 30 gear wheels and even a tiny script with instructions on how to use it. There is no evidence of similar devices until the medieval period. 

The Antikythera Mechanism in Athens. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

Greek Fire

In the 6th century AD, the Byzantine Empire was under constant threat from Arab invasion. So Callinicus of Heliopolis created a highly destructive weapon that no one saw coming.

It used fire…but upgraded. The recipe for Greek Fire was top-secret, a matter of life or death. Because of its success, the Byzantines managed to deter Arab aggression until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Greek Fire was fast spreading and almost inextinguishable. It was able to stay alight on water, and some reports suggest that water could have aided its spread. Sources claimed that the fire was only put out with urine, sand, or vinegar. It gained a fierce reputation, earning the name “ship killer.” It was responsible for deciding several battles, including the first Arab siege of Constantinople. 

An illustration of Greek Fire. Photo: Madrid Skylitzes

 

It was a liquid substance, usually launched onto enemy ships using pots or siphons. Even today, no one is sure what Greek Fire contains. Historians agree that it included a crude hydrocarbon, as napalm does. Other possible ingredients include quicklime, potassium nitrate, and sulfur. Chemists have tried to replicate this weapon, but the results were not as potent. 

Archimedes’ Death Ray

Archimedes was one of the greatest mathematicians in the ancient world. Not only was he great with numbers but he was also an engineering visionary. He is famous as the guy who ran naked through the streets of Syracuse, in Sicily, shouting “Eureka!” after he noticed the displacement of water in his bathtub.

He also invented war machines for the defense of his native town against the Romans.

One of these war machines was a potential heat ray. This claim is controversial because historians stress that there is no evidence of this invention. Perhaps a mistranslation of the sources describing his machines? Nevertheless, over the years, many paintings and illustrations have portrayed the heat ray in action.

Those who do believe that Archimedes created a heat ray believe the machine caught the sun with polished bronze or copper mirrors, angling the ray at Roman ships. They believe that the ships caught fire because of the intense heat. Scientific tests have proved that it is possible to set a ship on fire with this method. 

Hypocaust System

The word hypocaust comes from two Greek words; ‘hypo’ meaning under and ‘caust’ meaning burnt. Caius Sergius Orata developed the system in 80 BC and was mostly used by the rich upper classes in northern Italy. It was also a key component of thermal Roman baths.

Gas from fires or furnaces circulated in an open space beneath the floor. Squat pillars separated a layer of tiles and concrete from the main floor of a room. Romans could increase the temperature by adding more firewood. 

Tiles covered most government buildings and villas, making heat circulation easy. However, the lower classes rarely had the system installed, as it was expensive to maintain.

Hypocaust system in Cyprus. Photo: Bill Warry/Shutterstock

Houfeng Didong Yi

In AD 132, Zhang Heng, official court astronomer and historian to the Eastern Han Dynasty, invented the world’s first earthquake detector. Though not as advanced as today’s seismographs (from which we can determine the epicenter and magnitude of an earthquake), the Houfeng Didong Yi could determine the occurrence of the slightest earthquake, as well as its general direction. 

The device looked like a big bronze pot, adorned with eight dragon heads and eight toads at the base. Each dragon held a small bronze ball in its mouth, this dropped into one of the toads’ mouths to show the direction of an earthquake. The clang of the ball alerts officials to the shake, which they interpreted as either Heaven’s anger or an imbalance between good and evil. 

Replica of the Houfeng Didong Yi. Photo: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Nimrud Lens

It seems that the Assyrians had trouble reading. In 1845, archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard was excavating in the Assyrian city of Nimrud in northern Iraq when he came across an oval crystal. The crystal, which was eventually named the Layard Lens, is possibly the world’s first optical lens. 

Nimrud Lens in the British Museum. Photo: GFDL CC-BY-SA

 

Researchers date the quartz crystal to the 8th century BC. It is 4.20cm long, 3.45cm wide, and ranges in thickness from 4.10mm to 6.20mm. It has magnifying characteristics, leading some historians to believe that the Assyrians used it as a magnifier or kind of corrective lens.

However, others believe that it may have been a simple piece of jewelry, a decorative piece on a piece of furniture, a tool to start fires, or even part of a telescope. The jury is still out on its true use.

Baghdad Battery

The Baghdad Battery may be the world’s first example of electrical power. Archaeologists discovered the 2,000-year-old object south of Baghdad, in Iraq. The battery consists of a 130mm pot, a tube made from rolled-up copper, and an iron rod that may have been used for electroplating. The ceramic pot could have housed a type of acid to make this process possible.

Experiments have shown that the object could work as a battery, although here too, the ancient use of this intriguing device is uncertain. 

The Baghdad Battery. Photo: J J Osuna Caballero/Shutterstock

Mithridate

Mithridate, also known as mithridatum, was a classic case of “too good to be true”. Mithridates VI, the ruler of the Kingdom of Pontus, created this concoction in the 1st century BC. Mithridates VI sought to protect himself from poisoning. Alongside taking small doses of poison every day to build immunity, he made a concoction using over 60 ingredients, including substances like cardamom, parsley, myrrh, ginger, cinnamon, rhubarb, and rose leaves. Mithridates’ subjects ground these ingredients into a powder, mixed it with honey, and formed small oval pills. Mithridates believed that all these ingredients would combat poisons. 

Mithridatum. Photo: Wellcome Collection Gallery

 

This invention was merely the pseudo-pharmaceutical work of a paranoid monarch. Nevertheless, people used it until the 19th century. It was extremely popular in medieval and Renaissance times. It gave nobles and monarchs a sense of security from political enemies.

Yakhchal

The 4th century BC saw the creation of a modern staple, the freezer. The Persians created dome-like houses in the desert out of sand, clay, and other materials which could effectively trap and maintain ice. Water came in from an aqueduct or was brought to the yakhchal in buckets.

The dome is typically 15m high, has a small ventilation hole at the top, and could preserve food year-round thanks to the two-metre thick walls. The temperature in a yakchal could reach as low as -5°C.

Yakchal. Photo: Hadi Karimi

Damascus steel

People covet Damascus Steel for its shatter-resistant, sharp, and strong characteristics. But the Damascus steel knives in a modern kitchen differ from the Damascus steel of old. It had the reputation of being so hard and sharp that it could cut through a rifle barrel or slice a silk scarf falling across it.

Historians dispute the very name since no one knows if it originally came from Damascus. Damascus steel (also called wootz steel) is a metal high in carbon, glass, iron, and charcoal. These elements were placed under high heat. But over the centuries, blacksmiths lost the art of making Damascus steel.

A Japanese Damascus steel knife. Photo: Yuriy Golub/Shutterstock

Kristine De Abreu is a writer (and occasional photographer) based in sunny Trinidad and Tobago. Since graduating from the University of Leicester with a BA in English and History, she has pursued a full-time writing career, exploring multiple niches before settling on travel and exploration. While studying for an additional diploma in travel journalism with the British College of Journalism, she began writing for ExWeb. Currently, she works at a travel magazine in Trinidad as an editorial assistant and is also ExWeb's Weird Wonder Woman, reporting on the world's natural oddities as well as general stories from the world of exploration. Although she isn't a climber (yet!), she hikes in the bush, has been known to make friends with iguanas and quote the Lord of the Rings trilogy from start to finish.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments