Incredible Inventions of Ancient Civilizations


There’s a common impression that people in the past were less intelligent than they are today, since beliefs were widespread back then which are almost universally dismissed today. Yet John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin reported in 2011 that over the last 20,000 years, the average size of a human brain shrunk from 1,500 to 1,350 cubic centimeters. The automatic response from some would be that larger brains don’t necessarily correlate to higher intelligence, and that brain size relative to body mass is supposed to be more significant. The problem with that defense is that people used to be, on average, significantly shorter, too. It’s enough to make some people feel a little self-conscious. 

This is to say, there are anthropological indications that maybe past generations were a bit more clever and aware than an average person would be if teleported into the past, so it stands to reason that there were some inventive types out there whose accomplishments survived in posterity. Indeed, they likely deserve extra credit since, to paraphrase Isaac Newton, they didn’t have so many inventive giants on whose shoulders they could stand.  

10. Self-Propelled Flight

For centuries, aspiring inventors that included clergy members like Elmer of Malmesbury (circa 1000 AD) injured themselves and others trying to create a workable glider. So imagine how red their faces would be if they could look into 350 BC when Archytas of Tarentum, Italy was reported to have demonstrated a working flying machine much more complex than even the modest ambitions of later inventors. The device was a wooden dove with wings that was powered while still airborne, allowing it to fly as many as 200 meters. 

Details on how the device worked are admittedly sketchy. By some accounts, such as Benjamin Oishin’s Lost Knowledge, the device worked through counterweights to work a miniature pneumatic system. Smithsonian Magazine, however, posits that it was a wind up contraption. This uncertainty is largely borne out of the fact that the device is only known through writings by Hero of Alexandria, and even he was writing centuries after the fact.     

9. Plastic Surgery

First off, it would be best to explain that the “plastic” in plastic surgery is derived from the Greek word plastikos, (i.e. “shape”), not the petroleum-based compound. So when, in roughly 600 BC, Indian pioneer surgeon Sushruta was writing on the banks of the Ganges River about how to reconstruct an amputated nose, he didn’t happen to have access to plastic. This was someone working medical wonders with ant heads to seal wounds and only wine and cannabis for anesthesia. 

Inspired by a high demand for nose jobs at the time (because nose amputation was such a common punishment that it was inflicted on women only accused of adultery), the ancient doctor and instructor invented a technique of cutting skin from the cheek or forehead and sewing it onto the offending area. If this seems crude, bear in mind that it was centuries ahead of European methods and is still used today. 

8. Coin-Operated Vending Machine

While many have more memories of vending machines being frustrating than wondrous, there’s no denying that they seem like a highly complex piece of technology and it’s no wonder they didn’t become commercially viable until the 1880s. Or so someone might think, if they were unfamiliar with the 1st Century AD mathematician and inventor extraordinaire Hero of Alexandria (yes, him again). Today he’s best remembered for creating a functional steam turbine and completely failing to appreciate its potential, but this invention is arguably technically equally impressive and he found practical application for it. 

How it worked was that a coin would be inserted into a slot and fall onto a plate on a hinged balance beam. For the period before the coin’s weight caused it to slide off, the other end of the balance beam would be lifted, opening a dispenser for a moment and preventing temple-goers from taking more holy water than they paid for. Some might find the fact a technique for dispensing holy water was designed similarly to a flush toilet uncomfortable, but if it works it works, hence why vending machines used a similar design to Hero’s until electricity became sufficiently widespread.  

7. Semi-Automatic Crossbows

One of the big drawbacks of crossbows that led to them being dominated by Welsh longbows during the Hundred Years War was that their rate of fire was much lower. Such were the limitations of the weapons at the time. You couldn’t expect weapons manufacturers in the 14th and 15th Centuries AD to be as advanced as those in… 300 BC? 

In China, during what became known as the Warring Period (475 BC to 221 BC), a bolt-action repeating crossbow was invented in the state of Chu. It was made of mulberry wood as they were intended as a peasant-class weapon. They fired arrows that weren’t fletched to ensure they didn’t get jammed in the magazine. Even though they’d been in use for centuries before he was born, 3rd Century AD military strategist Zhuge Liang managed to get his name attached to them. It was a pretty fortunate association for his name, as the weapon was still being put to serious use as late as the 19th Century Boxer Rebellion. 

6. Batteries

These objects from millennia ahead of their time are some of the most understudied mysteries in the Middle East. In 1938, Austrian archaeologist Wilhelm Konig was performing an excavation in Khujut Rabu near Baghdad, Iraq. He found a 14-centimeter clay jar filled with electrolyte solution (wine or vinegar) with an iron bar coated by copper and sealed in place by asphalt. The device was dated to roughly 200 BC, putting it a comfortable 2,000 years before widely adopted electricity in the wider world.  

In recent years the case for the “Baghdad Battery” has been massively reevaluated. For one thing, Konig’s postulation that the device was used for electroplating was not substantiated, especially since, when the popular TV show Mythbusters replicated the object and tested it, they found it did not create nearly enough electricity for the function anyway. For another, subsequent studies found that it doesn’t date back to the original 200 BC but more likely to around 651 AD, which was a time where much of the Middle East was undergoing a Renaissance period and still more than a millennium ahead of the competition in the modern world. It’s likely the Baghdad Battery was a Hero of Alexandria-style situation where its creator was unable to find practical use for it, an even greater shame than its 2003 disappearance when the Iraq Museum in Baghdad was raided as a result of the US invasion.  

5. Air Conditioning

We modern people have Willis Carrier to thank for our modern air conditioners when he completed the first working model in 1902 at the age of 25. Those of ancient times? Well, we don’t know which specific inventors to thank or where they were when they first implemented their innovation, but that takes nothing away from its genius. 

The initial system was as simple as it was effective. It was called “windcatchers.” Tower-like smokestacks would be attached to buildings, with awnings that were angled to direct air into the buildings. They’ve been found across the Middle East from Egypt to India. There are multiple nations in that general region which have a claim that the original creator was in their territory. In Egypt, near Luxor, a painting was discovered in which Pharaoh Nebamun’s home had two windcatchers extending from it, and the painting dated back to 1300 BC. In Iran, the most certain instances date back to the same Persian Renaissance which produced the Baghdad Battery in 651, and as time went on they became complex enough to include dust filtering angles. However, a fire temple was found which contained extensions that were highly similar to windcatchers with no traces of soot or ash, and the building dated back to 4000 BC. Regardless, it’s proven so effective that it’s still being considered by some organizations and homeowners as a green and cost-saving alternative to electrical air conditioning.   

4. Deep Oil Drilling

The first oil well drilled in the USA was in 1859 in Pennsylvania. That it took America more than 70 years after its founding before drilling any oil wells might give the impression that it was a relatively new technology. In China, it would have been nothing new. In fact, it would have been more than a millennium from being new.  

The first reported deep surface oil drilling was performed in China around 327 AD. It seems fair to emphasize “deep” since the drilling went down to a depth of about 240 meters. You might think that would require a crude but immense metal bit. Reportedly, though, the first drillers just used bamboo poles to collect their shi you (“rock oil”). Despite the doubtless intense labor, the oil was used for the relatively simple task of distilling sea water. Even more impressive, there is evidence that Ancient Chinese roughnecks didn’t stop with collecting the wet stuff. No less than Confucius himself wrote of natural gas collection with bamboo pipes dug roughly 30 meters into the ground. At this point, it’s almost surprising that they didn’t have a method for fracking.      

3. Microscope

There’s some debate over who the inventor of the microscope is. There are cases made that it was the German Hans Lippershy or that it was the brothers Hans and Zacharias Janssens, who were also living in Middlesburg in the 1590s, the time that the microscope was said to have been invented. There were also claims that the brothers worked for Lippershy. Well TopTenz can settle this debate right here and now: It was actually an anonymous ancient person in China.

In approximately 2000 BC, specimens were studied by a tube. Not one filled with glass, as that option wasn’t available, but with water. To adjust the magnification, water would be added to or taken from the tube. Does that sound like something so crude it wouldn’t be useful by modern standards? Well, according to the documentation, it was capable of 150x magnification. Unfortunately it’s not known if the location of the original model survived, and thus like so many great inventions from ancient times the technology was lost for centuries. 

2. Damascus Steel

Although the general consensus is that it was first being forged around 500 AD, Damascus steel (aka damascene) first became known to Europeans in the 11th Century under the very disagreeable circumstances of Middle Easterners using such blades on them. For centuries, exactly how this very strong, very light metal with swirls on its surface was forged remained shrouded in mystery. One of the first widespread reports of how it was accomplished was published by the New York Times in 1981. It took 25 more years for the real wonders of the metal to be uncovered. In 2006 at the University of Dresden it was discovered that damascus steel was nanotechnology. 

Carbon nanotubes are hexagonal cylinders of carbon atoms that explain the heightened strength and malleability. Even as they kept the secret of damascus steel, even those ancient smiths didn’t fully understand the technological marvels they were creating! They wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it if they’d been loaned the ancient Chinese microscope. 

1. Computers

Where would you look for the world’s oldest computer? Since the first vending machine was a temple device, a major longstanding temple seems like a good start. Maybe an ancient marketplace or some imperial palace? Well, it turned out that the correct answer was to look underwater. Specifically near Antikythera Island in Greece, where excavation of the ancient computer began in 1900. 

The computer that became known as the Antikythera Mechanism dated back between 200 BC and 70 BC. Through a clockwork system of gears, it coordinated different navigational variables such as the movements of the moon and stars. It wasn’t exactly a GPS device, but it remains the most complex device in the archaeological record for at least a thousand years. Shame that it sunk and was largely corroded, or perhaps we could have seen a true tribute to the wisdom of the ancients in action, instead of simulated with Lego blocks. 

Dustin Koski is one of the contributors to Return of the Living, the first Bogleech novel. It’s a story of the first living being appearing centuries after all life on Earth has become ghosts.

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