4/26/10

The Wonders of Forgotten Technology

I loved my history classes in High School.  I was blessed with a few really good teachers, with a keen interest in the subject they were teaching, and that kind of excitement is infectious.  I've always leaned towards American History rather than old-world history (see what I did with capital letters there?) but once in awhile something comes along and piques my interest again.

Historical inaccuracy fascinates me.  What do we 'know for sure' that really didn't happen?  Or perhaps happened differently?  The current 'Tea Party' movement in American politics is a great example of current values being projected backwards in history and applied to situations that were vastly different.  My recent deep questioning of my religious beliefs also falls into this category.  But there's another side to the whole 'certainty' aspect that I don't see much of and read an article today on Cracked.com, of all places, regarding forgotten technology.  Simply put, technology and advancement that was forgotten for ages and would've made a REAL difference in historical development.  Here are the examples from that list and a few more I've looked up.  SCIENCE!


  • Steam Engine
    • Common knowledge states the steam engine was invented in the 1700s and was the catalyst for the Industrial Revolution.  However, the first steam engine that actually designed in Alexandria in the first century.  Nobody knew what to do with it, as they couldn't properly translate it into a useful purpose, so it was considered a novelty.
  • Gold Statue of Buddha
    • This isn't really 'technology' but it was on the Cracked.com list.  A 10-foot-tall solid gold Buddha statue in Thailand was forgotten and misplaced for centuries.  How does this happen?  Well, in the 1700s the Burmese (lovely chaps) were invading Thailand and the Thai gov't covered the statue in plaster and placed in a nondescript temple to prevent it from being plundered.  Well, one thing led to another and they forgot where they put it.  It was found in the 1950s by accident when it was dropped during transit and chipped.
  • Cure for Scurvy
    • Scurvy happens when you don't get enough vitamin C, and was quite common with sailors as they'd spend months at sea.  The British Empire discovered that lemons kept the scurvy away, but hadn't quite caught on that citrus fruits had different properties, and after awhile replaced lemons with limes (as they were more plentiful) and replaced actual limes with juice for ease of use.  Limes don't have as much Vit-C.  Re-enter scurvy until science proved that, yes, limes and lemons were DIFFERENT.
  • Ligature
    • Ligature is the process of tying up a bleeding artery to prevent catastrophic blood loss.  It was first discovered as a useful surgical method in the second century and was regaled as a breakthrough in prolonging life, but then the Dark Ages came.  Ligature was forgotten in favor of cauterization by burning tar.  What's that, got a gash in your knee?  Pour some ol' burning tar in it.  That'll fix it up.  Ligature wasn't re-discovered until the late 1500s.
  • The Great Hedge
    • This sounds silly.  A hedge, really?  Hear me out.  Back in olden days, salt was king.  It was used as currency in some places and seen as the driving force behind most commerce.  Think Dune.  However, anyone could get salt if they knew how to mine it from evaporated ocean beds in places like India.  The British East Indian Trading Company didn't like their colony finding a workaround for their steep salt tax, so they planted a big hedge.  It was 2,000 miles long.  There were NO mentions in ANY history books until some random guy found passing mention to it in a footnote.  Makes me wonder what else existed that we don't know about because no one thought to write it down.
  • Concrete
    • Did you know Romans discovered concrete in about 300 BC?  Makes sense, considering the architecture of Rome, the aqueducts, the invention of the arch, etc.  However, one of the prime ingredients in Roman Concrete was volcanic ash, and when other Europeans tried to replicate their success, they failed...so, here come the Dark Ages again, and people just abandon it.  It wasn't re-discovered until the 1750s.  That's a long time.
  • Antikythera Mechanism
    • This really gets my brain buzzing.  In the early 1900s a small geared device was found in a wreck off the coast of Greece that dates to about 150 BC.  This device was as complicated as astronomical clocks built in the 1800s and was used as a sort of 'astronomical calculator' similar to a sextant.  It calculated the position of the Sun, Moon, stars, other known planets, and was designed with Earth being the center of the solar system, as that was the knowledge of the day.  And it's miniaturized.
  • Baghdad Battery
    • Not just clever alliteration.  Archeologists discovered that folks back in Mesopotamian days had designed a system for electricity.  It consists of a jar with a rolled-up copper sheet wrapped around an iron rod inside it.  The jar was filled with a sort of acid for conduction.  They didn't produce much in the way of electrical charge, and there's many theories as to what they were actually used for, but that fact that a form of electricity was discovered that long ago staggers me.
If you know of any others, please comment with them.  I love this stuff.
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