We often think of our distant ancestors--and not for nothing --as superstitious savages who worshipped the sun and the moon and lived in ignorance of the finer workings of the universe.
But a handful of fairly recent discoveries demonstrate that the ancients were familiar with some the most advanced gadgets we possess. From computers and robots to nanotechnology, batteries and more, the ancient world might still have plenty to teach us about high-tech.
In 1901, divers off the coast of southern Greece recovered a mysterious copper device the size of a shoebox from the wreck of an ancient Roman ship. Named the Antikythera mechanism after the island near which it was discovered, it contained some 32 gears and dials. It took scientists roughly a century to confirm that it was, in fact, an early computer--a machine that could predict astronomical phenomena, dated at around 100 BCE.
“The more we learn about it the more ingenious it seems,” says Alex Roland, a professor emeritus of history of technology and military history at Duke University. “It was indeed a kind of computer.”
The device is similar to lost inventions mentioned in ancient texts--specifically to one attributed to Archimedes, the legendary Greek mathematician who calculated the value of pi and was responsible for a host of technological advances in the ancient world. By connecting many gears of different sizes, the ancient craftsmen were able to model complex mathematical relationships, and the Antikythera mechanism was capable of calculating, for example, the positions of different planets on a given date. It served the same function, essentially, that complex astrology software performs today.
They weren’t quite lasers as we know them, but the ancients definitely had a concept--and likely some prototypes--of directed energy rays. Legend has it that the same Archimedes who built ancient computers used a set of mirrors to burn enemy Roman ships when they approached his native city of Syracuse in 214 BCE. Recent experiments have shown that this was possible, but critics say it was hardly very practical, since it would only work in ideal weather and under carefully controlled conditions.
“Using mirrors to burn enemy ships is possible, but the defense against it is so simple as to make it useless,” says Professor Roland. “All you have to do is move the ship the slightest amount--even just pull in or let out your anchor lines, and the mirrors will have to be refocused. It is much easier to move the ships than to focus the mirrors.”
Others have questioned the authenticity of the legend, pointing out that the earliest known source that claimed explicitly that Archimedes used burning mirrors was dated to around 500 CE, some 700 years after the event. But regardless, an early work on burning mirrors dates back to only a few decades after Archimedes’s death, and it is clear that, whether or not the ancients used burning mirrors in battle, they were well aware of their potential.
That wasn’t all that different, actually, compared to where we are today: despite all the hype and the science-fiction, the practical use of lasers on the battlefield remains limited.
Over the past few decades, robots have time and again sparked the imagination of science fiction writers, but they are not nearly as new as this might suggest. The ancients had their own mythical Terminators: one example is Talos, the giant bronze statue that mythically protected Crete from invaders by throwing rocks at their ships.
What is more, it was not just mythology--it was closer to ancient science fiction. Around 350 BCE, the ancient Greek mathematician and philosopher Archytas is rumored to have created a steam-powered robot pigeon that could fly for up to 200 meters. The first known programmable robot arrived some 400 years later and was invented by Hero of Alexandria, another legendary scientist who also came up with a primitive steam engine, hydraulics and numerous automated entertainment devices.
It consisted of an automated puppet theater mounted on a three-wheeled cart which could be programmed to perform various acts by virtue of a complex system of weights and strings. According to the New Scientist, its programming mechanism used a similar logic to that of contemporary robots.
"It allows you to program a robot to move forwards, to move backwards, to stop and to turn, and those are exactly the same sorts of commands used in modern robots,” Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, UK, told the New Scientist.
Ancient automatons were common, in fact. Consider the cuckoo clock.
For many years, the secret of the Lycurgus Cup, which changes its color depending on what it contains and at what angle the light strikes it, baffled scientists. Then in 1990 they looked at it with an electron microscope and discovered it was made with nano particles of gold and silver. Critics say the Roman makers of the cup could not possibly have known how it worked. However, even today the extravagant properties of many nano-scale materials are still being studied and accidental discoveries remain common.
More recently, a team of researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign were inspired by the cup, whose name derives from a Thracian king depicted on it, to create a novel test for pathogens in order to diagnose disease (or find traces of explosives at airports). Enthusiasts have even raised the possibility that the cup may have been used by its original owners to detect poisoned wine--a common way of dispatching enemies in ancient Rome.
Though there are some unanswered questions about the provenance of the devices discovered near Baghdad in the 1930s, many archaeologists agree that they were indeed batteries. The clay jars, dated at around 200 BCE, contained a copper cylinder with an iron rod inside it and traces of an acid solution that may have been used as an electrolyte. Contemporary replicas have produced minor electric currents with an electric potential of one to two volts.
The major disagreement is what the "Baghdad batteries" were used for. Some speculate that the ancients knew about electroplating--a secret art which may have once carried a price tag of “а palace, kingdom, or even the sultan's daughter.” Others argue that they may have been connected to metal idols to deliver minor but palpable electric shocks to awe-struck visitors. Perhaps there was something after all to legends about the gods striking their enemies with lightning bolts.
But what happened then?
A major unanswered question is, why did these technologies disappear from the face of the Earth for thousands of years before they were reinvented in modern times? Conventional wisdom has it that much of ancient learning was lost during the decay of the ancient empires, military invasions, and the burning of great ancient libraries such as that of Alexandria. Persecution in Europe during the Middle Ages, when many of the remaining manuscripts were destroyed and people were burned at the stake for saying things such as that the Earth moves around the sun, also set science back centuries.
But some technologies, such as computers and robots, may not have disappeared entirely, says Rien van de Weijgaert, a professor of astronomy at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, whose special research interests include ancient scientific advances. Similarities with medieval clocks and other devices created in Europe centuries later, says van de Weijgaert, suggest that “there is a thin line of passing on the technology from Antiquity to the Middle Ages."
Subsequently, these mechanisms were advanced toward perfection, bringing us to where we are now.
[Archeology: Salajean via Shutterstock]