When it comes to the vast and variegated subject of history, we have talked about warrior cultures, grisly practices, oldest known objects, and impressive structures. But as it turns out, history also witnessed many ingenious and practical inventions that are seemingly contemporary in their scope and usage pattern. So without further ado, let us take a gander at twelve such fascinating yet effective historical inventions that some of us might have thought of as being modern contrivances.
*Note – We have limited the latest historical invention till the early 17th century, so as to preserve the scope of ‘historicity’ before the Industrial Revolution. Another thing to keep in consideration is that most of the dates and innovations mentioned in the list are estimations based on both literary and verbal accounts, as opposed to extant pieces of evidence.
1) Heavy-Duty Crane (circa late 6th century BC) –
The early precursor to the simple crane pertains to the shadouf. Possibly invented in Mesopotamia by circa 3000 BC (and widely utilized in ancient Egypt by circa 2000 BC), the device was based on the lever mechanism, and as such was used for lifting water in irrigation fields. However, the heavy-duty crane (as we know in our modern times) tailored to lifting heavy components (like building blocks) and hauling them to a different location within a site, was invented later.
To that end, the conceptual force behind a crane is pretty straightforward that deals with the creation of what is known as ‘mechanical advantage’. And while its imposing aspects might hint at a sturdy modern contraption, the mechanism in itself was invented by the ancient Greeks by circa 515 BC. This technological shift was evident from the specific recesses and cuttings on the smaller stone blocks used in Greek temples of the Classical Period. As for the crane itself, it was arguably tailored for a small yet seemingly professional workforce, as opposed to the ramp system used by a large number of laborers available to empires like Egypt and Assyria.
Furthermore, the Romans further developed this Greek invention, which led to a simple crane mechanism known as trispastos. This system boasted of the mechanical advantage of 3:1, thus allowing a single man to lift around 150 kg. Later a 5-pulley system known as polyspastos, could employ four men while accounting for a substantial weight carrying capacity of 3,000 kg or 6,600 lbs (and that capacity jumped to 6,000 kg for two men – if the winch was replaced by a larger diameter tread-wheel). So, for comparison’s sake, during the construction of the Egyptian pyramids, a stone block of 2.5 tones required around 50 men to be pushed up the ramp. On the other hand, a single polyspastos was a whopping 60-times more efficient, since each man could account for 3,000 kg (around 3 tons)!
2) Battlefield Surgery (circa 1st century BC) –
The Roman army and its incredible organizational depth constituted the greatest of Roman strengths, thus setting them apart from other ancient military institutions. One of the major advantages of the sheer organizational scope directly pertained to the self-sufficient capacity of the individual legions. And it was the immunes, a group of highly trained specialists who were specifically employed to maintain the logistical and medical sustenance of the legions. Ranging from doctors, engineers to architects, these men were exempt from the hard labor duties of the rank-and-file soldiers, while also earning more than them – thus hinting at the (presumed) crucial nature of their jobs.
Pertaining to the Roman medical professionals, their dedicated battlefield surgery units were instrumental in the use of innovative contraptions like hemostatic tourniquets and arterial surgical clamps to curb blood loss. This was complemented by antiseptic measures where instruments were disinfected with hot water before their real-time usage, thus espousing an ‘advanced’ form of surgery that only became the norm after the 19th century.
Moreover, the doctor’s job also entailed the supervision of sanitation quality in the army camps, which aided in the mitigation of dreadful logistical nightmares, otherwise known as the spread of diseases. Taking all of these factors into account, combined with a better diet, the Roman soldiers (possibly) tended to live longer than their civilian counterparts, thus alluding to the efficiency of the ancient Roman doctors and surgeons.
3) Numerical Zero (circa 3rd century AD) –
The invention of zero is often attributed to the Indians. Now the question naturally arises – how can zero be invented if we know it signifies nothingness? Well, zero was more of a conceptual embodiment that alluded to ‘nothingness’, even when used in mathematics. But the Indians were the first to treat zero as a digit (i.e., a number) and thus demonstrated its use in numerical calculations. This pretty much changed the course of the history of mathematics and so is rightly considered as one of the significant breakthroughs in the field. And this incredible scope can be traced back to the Bakhshali manuscript, a Sanskrit-written document inscribed on 70 pieces of birch bark, dating from 3rd-4th century AD.
Boasting hundreds of zero origin symbols, the Bakhshali manuscript (currently kept in Britain since 1902) was discovered in 1881, buried in a field in a village called Bakhshali, near Peshawar. And after translations followed, it was determined that the manuscript was composed as a sort of training manual for merchants operating along the Silk Route. Suffice it to say, the ancient document comprises specimens of practical arithmetics (that helped the merchants in their dealings), and these were complemented by proto-algebraic examples.
Now as for the zero origin symbols in the Bakhshali manuscript, it should be noted that these zeroes are denoted by placeholders in a number system, as opposed to their use as a true number. Other ancient cultures like the Babylonians and Mayans also used their own form of placeholders for the ambit of ‘nothingness’. However, in the case of this Sanskrit-written document, the placeholder used for the zero pertains to a dot, and it was this dot symbol that ultimately evolved into the hollow zero symbols we are familiar with today.
Additionally, the Bakhshali manuscript probably puts forth the earliest known notion of zero being used as a number, which was soundly demonstrated by Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta, in a text called Brahmasphutasiddhanta, dating from circa 628 AD. And interestingly enough, the very word ‘zero’ also has its etymological roots in Sanskrit. How so? Well, zero comes from Venetian zevero, a form of Italian zefiro. This, in turn, is derived via pre-Islamic Arabic ṣafira or ṣifr (cipher) – which ultimately comes from ‘sunya‘ in Sanskrit (meaning ’emptiness’).
4) Toilet Paper (circa 6th century AD) –
The use of paper for conventional items (like packing, wrapping, and padding) has been documented from the time before the 2nd century BC in Chinese history. However, the first specific mention of the material being used as a toilet paper comes from the 6th century AD. According to scholar-official Yan Zhitui, who mentioned the particular usage pattern in 589 AD –
Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes.
However, the most probable mass scale manufacturing of the ‘modern’ toilet paper started from 1391 AD – with some figures pertaining to 720,000 sheets of toilet paper being supplied annually for the imperial court in Nanjing (during the Ming Dynasty). Among these, there were over 15,000 sheets of special soft-fabric toilet paper that were perfumed – to be used by Emperor Hongwu’s imperial family.
5) Vertical Axis Windmill (possibly circa early 6th century AD) –
The core technology of windmills obviously came from wind sails that were used for the maneuvering of ships. However, the first known use of wind power for automatically aiding daily manual tasks – like grinding grain or pumping water, most probably originated from Persia. To the end, the first historically documented panemone windmill design (a variant of vertical axis windmill) is actually of Persian origin, with accounts of the tech being as old as 1,500 years.
This particular specimen’s vertical sail was built from bundled reeds or timber, and they were, in turn, were fixed to the central vertical shaft with the help of horizontal struts. The bidirectional system was perhaps further fine-tuned with the use of strategically placed external walls that aided in the guiding of the available wind in the desired direction.
6) Banknote (circa 7th century AD) –
The first known use of paper money occurred during the Tang Dynasty period (probably during the early 9th century), though the phenomenon was very localized. In fact, the banknotes were adopted mainly due to the unwieldy heavyweight of copper coins that were previously exchanged during large commercial transactions. And, by the late 10th century Song Dynasty period, transactions entailing paper money were adopted by many merchants and wholesalers throughout China.
The process involved the traveling merchant allocating his large numbers of coins to a trustworthy person – and in return, he was given a note. This note, also known as ‘Jiaozi‘, was used as a sort of printed certificate that could replace the heavyweight iron and copper coins. The adoption of this method caught up with the financial experts at such a pace that a special savings bank, known as the ‘Office of Jiaozi’, was established. Later on by the early 11th century, Song authorities banned any private dealing of Jiaozi, thus establishing a lucrative government monopoly on the issuing of such promissory notes.
7) Land Mine (circa 13th century AD) –
According to Joseph Needham, in his book Science and Civilization in China, the Chinese forces under the Song Dynasty did use explosive landmines as a defensive strategy against the marauding Mongols. On particular incident during this time pertains to the year 1277 AD when one Lou Qianxia crafted an ‘enormous bomb’ that was successfully detonated when the Mongols were besieging a southern Chinese settlement. The follow-up to such military actions led to the documentation of the said technology in the famed 14th-century Chinese manual Huolongjing. The explanation for these landmines mainly related to the use of hollow cast iron balls that were presumably filled with gunpowder.
Interestingly, the Huolongjing also has a detailed passage that describes the use of tactical landmines that can be set off by enemy movements (thus mirroring our present-day technology). According to the text –
These mines are mostly installed at frontier gates and passes. Pieces of bamboo are sawed into sections nine feet in length, all septa in the bamboo being removed, save only the last; and it is then bandaged round with fresh cow-hide tape. Boiling oil is next poured into (the tube) and left there for some time before being removed. The fuse starts from the bottom (of the tube), and (black powder) is compressed into it to form an explosive mine. The gunpowder fills up eight-tenths of the tube, while lead or iron pellets take up the rest of the space; then the open end is sealed with wax. A trench five feet in depth is dug (for the mines to be concealed). The fuse is connected to a firing device which ignites them when disturbed.
Interestingly, there were also instances when the enemy was lured into the ‘trespassing zone’ of special mines (known as Zi Fan Pao or ‘Self-induced Bomb’) by placing weapons on the mounds concealing the firing devices (that were usually slow-burning bowls). Fueled by our innate desire to get hold of shiny (and free) objects, the poor soul would trigger the gunpowder-based setup by the overturning this bowl, thus leading to the fuses being lit for the imminent detonation.
8) Eye Glasses (circa 13th century AD) –
There is certainly a bit of confusion regarding the actual time period of the invention of the eyeglasses. Interestingly enough, medieval European monks may have used glass objects for reading, by making use of their magnifying effect. Similarly, Venetian glassblowers may have also manufactured single-lens type frames (of horn or wood) that held solid glasses for reading.
According to a sermon delivered by Dominican friar Giordano da Pisa, eyeglasses were supposedly developed in Italy by 1286 AD. In fact, there are also documentations (like in one of the chronicles of the Dominican Order) that Giordano’s colleague – Friar Alessandro della Spina of Pisa had a talent for making nifty eyeglasses, which he then shared with his friends. By the early 14th century, there were supposedly business regulations for guilds who specialized in crafting eyeglasses in Venice. To that end, the first known artistic representation of the use of eyeglasses pertains to Tommaso da Modena’s painting in 1352 (presented above).
However, according to Professor Berthold Laufer, a German-American anthropologist, spectacles (or related glass objects) were of possibly Indian origin – with the basis being that the German word ‘brille‘ (eyeglasses) was ultimately derived from the Sanskrit ‘vaidurya‘. Moreover, there were also claims put forth by Marco Polo about his encountering of eyeglasses in China during the 13th century.
9) Parachute (circa 15th century AD) –
The oldest parachute design in its conceptual version was rendered in a manuscript dating from 1470’s Renaissance Italy, written by an anonymous person. However, the great polymath Leonardo da Vinci made his improved design as a detailed sketch in the famed Codex Atlanticus (in around 1485 AD). But once again, the physical variety of the parachute might have come later, with Croatian inventor Fausto Veranzio (Faust Vrančić) improving on da Vinci’s sketch to build an actual specimen. He MAY have even tested his contraption (known as Homo Volans) at the ripe age of 65 when he performed a ‘parachute jump‘ from a tower of St Mark’s Campanile in Venice (or St Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava).
Interestingly, the very term ‘parachute’ has confused many a language analyst – with some claiming it to have French origins, while others claiming it to have Italian origins. However, one thing is certain – the predominance of parachutes as a feasible technology was borne by necessity in 18th century France when the adventurers needed a safety device when demonstrating their flights in hot-air balloons.
10) Humanoid Automaton (possibly circa 15th century AD) –
Clad in heavy German-Italian medieval armor, the mechanical knight was designed in 1495 as a humanoid automaton. And interestingly, the machine with its internal system of pulleys, gears, levers, and cranks, MIGHT have been the very first human-like robot physically created (as opposed to conceptualized, like in the case of Philo’s 3rd century BC treatise of Mechanike syntaxis that describes a mechanical servant) in the history of mankind – by none other than Leonardo da Vinci himself. According to some accounts, this so-called robot was ceremoniously displayed at the court of Milan during a gala hosted by the city’s Duke Ludovico Sforza.
Fueled by these internal mechanisms (distributed evenly across the torso and the body’s lower-part), the Robotic ‘Knight’ supposedly had the capacity to both sit-down and stand up, while also showing its ability in lifting its visor and even moving its head. And quite intriguingly, the famed roboticist Mark Rosheim (known for his contributions to NASA and Lockheed Martin) successfully built a version of this humanoid automaton in 2002 by making use of da Vinci’s drawings, discovered in the 1950s. And, the result aptly demonstrated the effectiveness of the original design with the robot being able to fluidly move and wave.
11) Newspaper (circa early 17th century AD) –
It should be noted that government announced bulletins and even news sheets were actually common during the Roman Era and Han Era (in Asia). For example, in Rome, the bulletins were known as Acta Diurna, and they were carved in both metal and stone, and then positioned in public places. While in Han China, the government circulated newsletter was known as the Hibao (or ‘reports from the [official] residences’). However, the first known newspaper (as in ‘news printed in paper’) was published in the year 1605.
Known as Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien, the German-language weekly was published by Johann Carolus in Strasbourg, which was a free city within the Holy Roman Empire. It was followed by the Avisa, another German weekly that started out in 1609 AD and was published from Wolfenbüttel.
12) Honorable Mention – The ‘Analog Computer’ (circa late 3rd century BC)
The reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism presented here was made by historian of mechanism (and mechanician-extraordinaire) Michael T. Wright. He also made an actual working model of the ancient contraption, which has been presented in another video below.
Often described as the world’s oldest analog computer, the Greek-made Antikythera Mechanism was salvaged from Antikythera, an underwater location, south of Greece, in 1900. And since then the proverbial ‘contraption’ has astonished archaeologists and scientists alike, by virtue of not only its advanced workmanship but also fascinating (and rather enigmatic) purpose/s. To that end, the artifact is often also stated as the world’s oldest gear ‘machine’ (based on the workings of the differential calculator) – crafted to predict various complex astronomical observances, including planetary positions and eclipses.
Now in terms of history, there are various unsolved mysteries pertaining to the true creator/s of the advanced historical object, with potential candidates ranging from craftsmen of Corinth to ‘engineers’ of Pergamum. But previously most historians did settle on a singular factor – the original date of the Antikythera Mechanism was believed to be from around the period of 100 BC. But now even this date is challenged, as a result of the detailed study undertaken (in 2014) by James Evans from the University of Puget Sound and Christián Carman from the University of Quilmes.
This newer direction of analysis alludes to two interesting conjectures. Firstly, the Antikythera Mechanism was quite possibly based on the mathematical scope put forth by the earlier Babylonians, as opposed to the later-developed Greek trigonometry. Secondly, this ancient piece of machinery might have been the very same device mentioned by Cicero – which supposedly was crafted by the great Archimedes himself, and was taken as booty by Roman general Marcellus during the sack of Syracuse in 212 BC. Additionally, more recent assessments have further hinted at the possibility that there were more than one of these devices, and they were probably built by more than one person on the island of Rhodes.