World history is full of stories of men and women who changed the world. Human civilization boasts of a slew of Visionaries in the field of Art, Science, War, Politics and so on. Each person contributed something to the world in their time, and are remembered for their work. Some of them are now words on a page, while the other still works miracles in our lives.
The science of the Past
Science has always been the driving force behind the progress of civilizations. Inventors and Scientists were the ones who came up with brilliant new devices, methods, and ideas that would become another step towards the development of their society. Because of this, the ancient civilizations held men of knowledge and science in high regard.
Issac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulder of Giants.” Ancient scientists were the ones who laid the foundation of progress, and also for the development of the future works in their fields.
Many inventions act as the prototype or the first of its kind for devices of the present. These weren’t necessarily modern, but dates back centuries. Many of these, which are seemingly small compared to their modern counterparts, actually laid the groundwork for them. Here are a few of those ingenious inventions.
The power of boiling water was famously harnessed by James Watt for moving locomotives, but the idea of it came much, much earlier. The first use of steam power ever recorded was by renowned Greek mathematician and engineer, Hero of Alexandria.
Hero invented a device called aeolipile, named after The God of Wind, Aiolos. The invention was a hollow metal sphere mounted on two hollow steam carrying pipes, with two nozzles on opposite ends. The steam came from the other end of the tubes and was made by heating water.
Even though this was only a toy, it harnessed steam power and used it to spin at speeds of 1500 rpm, both events almost unheard of at the time. This was the first device ever to use thermal energy and hence is considered groundbreaking and a pioneer for all subsequent devices of the like.
Today we harness the power of steam for innumerable things, but the root lies in something very simple which was invented hundreds of years ago. Learning and acquiring knowledge is a constant process. Our forefathers learned based on the opportunities they had. They solved problems as per the needs and requirements of that era.
Today we have much bigger problems. We are generating nuclear power to fuel so many things because conventional forms of energy are not able to meet demand and the need for clean and green energy is at all-time high.
However, the point here is the requirement for energy. Our ancestors had the same problem and solved it. We are facing the same problem and solve it in our own way. Our future generations may solve the problem in much more innovative ways. The idea is to learn, grow, and accept change!
The Baghdad Battery
Electricity is the defining characteristic of the modern world. From human power to steam and finally to voltage, we have undergone radical changes on what power the world runs on.
The Baghdad battery is considered to be 2000 years old, and is from Baghdad, as the name suggests. It’s a Clay pot containing a hollow copper tube with an iron rod suspended in the middle of it without touching the cylinder itself. There were models made of this device and experiments were done, which concluded that this was an ancient, functioning, 2 Volt Battery. That’s equivalent to a single cell of the modern car battery. The question remains as to what it was used to power.
However, the point I am trying to make here is that electricity may be a basic necessity today, but the requirement for electricity was felt 2000 years ago. Today we may run the biggest thermal and nuclear power stations and lighting millions of homes, but we have built on the knowledge which our ancestors shared with us. The power engineering textbooks did not magically appear in the libraries. They are a result of 1000’s of years of evolution and knowledge transfer.
It is widely accepted that the ancients had better mastery over metals for the technology of their time. The mastery of Metals vary in degree, and from empire to empire, and consists of a wide range of works like Ironmaking, Electroplating and even Nanotechnology.
The Iron Pillar in Delhi is an excellent example of the skills of the ancient Indian iron smiths. Built during the time of Emperor Chandragupta Vikramaditya, this seven-meter high pillar is made of Iron, and the material seems to exhibit all salient features of an iron structure, except for rust. Over 1600 years old, the pillar is still intact, and the reason behind it is a mystery to this day.
Another wonder of Metallurgy is in the field of electroplating precious metals such as silver and gold. Scientists have discovered evidence of technology superior to that of today’s, in many items over 2000 years old. Many amulets, statues, and jewelry have thin, uniform films of Gold and Silver, phenomenal by even today’s standards.
Perhaps even more exciting is the discovery of the Lycurgus Cup. This chalice is ancient Roman, over 1600 years old, and is jade green when illuminated from the front and blood red when lighted from behind. The discoverers could not solve the mystery until 1990 when it was finally revealed as applied nanotechnology. Nanoparticles of Siver and Gold, as small as 50 nanometers were impregnated in the glass. The work was so precise that even modern day technology doesn’t hold a candle to it.
Do I need to talk about the utility of minerals and metals in today’s world? The laptop or mobile device you are using to read this is made up of metal. Again, the makers did not conclude that a particular metal is best suited to build your laptop. It is a result of evolution, knowledge sharing, mistakes, and most importantly the hunger to learn and build something better.
Sometimes, the “when I was your age” stories from the ancient world fills us with respect. The developments they had made despite the limited technology is astounding. We could not be have been where we are today without ancient wisdom. Science builds on top of previous knowledge. So, we should continue to innovate and continue to learn more. That’s life!
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