These ancient technologies were way ahead of their time

Incredible artifact discoveries reveal many ancient cultures were capable of far more than previously thought.

People tend to think of ancient civilizations and their technologies as primitive, but while certainly not as impressive as our technology trends, it’s still incredible what they were able to do with the limited tools and resources available to them. Incredible artifact discoveries have shown that some of these cultures were way ahead of their time and capable of far more than previously thought.

From ancient alarm clocks to an industrial revolution that almost happened thousands of years ago with the invention of steam power, here are 10 fascinating ancient technologies.

The Lycurgus Cup, a 4th century Roman technicolor cup

A view showing both colors, and the variation in the red.

The beautiful Lycurgus Cup is a Roman glass cup made from dichroic glass, which shows different colors depending on the direction and amount of light passing through it. The Lycurgus Cup can be a glowing translucent red tint, or opaque green, with many variations in between. The art on it depicts King Lycurgus of Thrace ensnared in a tangle of grapevines.

The cup puzzled scientists until the 1990s, when researchers in England discovered that the “Roman artisans were nanotechnology pioneers,” according to Smithsonian Magazine. A few years later, scientists were able to reproduce dichroic glass as a result of materials research carried out by NASA and its contractors. It’s still unclear how exactly the Romans were able to create this effect.

What we do know is that the color-changing effect is caused by tiny amounts of colloidal gold and silver.

According to Smithsonian Magazine:

They’d impregnated the glass with particles of silver and gold, ground down until they were as small as 50 nanometers in diameter, less than one-thousandth the size of a grain of table salt. The exact mixture of the precious metals suggests the Romans knew what they were doing—“an amazing feat,” says one of the researchers, archaeologist Ian Freestone of University College London.

Greek alarm clocks

Machinery as we know it today did not exist in Ancient Greece, but that didn’t stop a few intelligent ancient inventors from creating alarm clocks.

The large water clock was a popular style of clock back in ancient Greece. But Plato’s clock, according to some historians, had an added feature beyond simply measuring time. It chimed in the early evening, presumably to signal the beginning of a lecture, and once at dawn.

The Hellenistic engineer and inventor Ctesibius (285–222 BC) modified his water clock with a dial and a pointer to display the time. But the real ingenuity happened with Ctesibius added an intricate alarm system, involving pebbles dropping on a gong at a specific time. Ctesibius also created an alarm system that blew compressed air through a beating reed, which made a trumpet-like sound.

Encyclopedia Britannica outlines some of Ctesibius’ inventions:

Ctesibius was the son of a barber. The discovery of the elasticity of air is attributed to Ctesibius, as is the invention of several devices using compressed air, including force pumps and an air-powered catapult. His most famous invention, however, was an improvement of the clepsydra, or water clock, in which water dripping at a constant rate raised a float that held a pointer to mark the passage of the hours. Another notable invention was a hydraulis, or water organ, in which air was forced through the organ pipes by the weight of water rather than by falling lead weights.

Some historians claim that the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (428–348 BC) had a similar alarm system with a modified water clock. Plato had to give lectures at dawn, so it’s not a surprise that he’d need a little bit of help getting up in the morning.

Baghdad batteries

From The Physics Book: From the Big Bang to Quantum Resurrection, 250 Milestones in the History of Physics.

Batteries are an essential part of modern-day electronics, and they weren’t officially invented until the 19th century. But ancient Persia seems to have been way ahead of its time.

in 1938, German archaeologist Wilhelm König discovered a primitive “battery” in Baghdad in modern day Iraq — a pottery vessel containing tar, an anode, and cathode. It’s known today as the Baghdad Battery.

Its origin and purpose remain unclear. It was hypothesized by some researchers that the object functioned as a galvanic cell, possibly used for electroplating, or some kind of electrotherapy, but there is no electroplated object known from this period. An alternative explanation is that it functioned as a storage vessel for sacred scrolls.

This discovery suggests that ancient people might have known more about electricity than we previously thought. Unfortunately, no corresponding electrical devices have been discovered to accompany the battery, which leaves us wondering what the battery was actually used for.

On the 29th episode (23 March 2005), the Mythbusters team replicated the Baghdad batteries, using lemon juice as the electrolyte to activate the electrochemical reaction between the copper and iron. When connected in series, their ten terracotta jars produced 4 volts of electricity.

Steam engine, 1st century

Illustration accompanying Hero’s entry in Pneumatica, published in the first century AD. “No. 50. The Steam-Engine. PLACE a cauldron over a fire: a ball shall revolve on a pivot. A fire is lighted under a cauldron, A B, (fig. 50), containing water […] As the cauldron gets hot it will be found that the steam, entering the ball through E F G, passes out through the bent tubes towards the lid, and causes the ball to revolve, as in the case of the dancing figures.”

In the first century, mathematician and engineer Hero of Alexandria created something that wouldn’t change the world until centuries later — the steam engine.

Hero’s invention, the aeolipile, is a simple, bladeless radial steam turbine that spins when the central water container is heated. The steam jets exiting the turbine produces torque, a similar concept still used in physics today.

This invention could have completely changed the world. The steam engine is one of the biggest catalysts for the industrial revolution, and if the Romans would have developed this technology more, there’s no telling what would have happened.

Unfortunately, the steam engine was looked at as a fun party trick instead.

It is not known whether the aeolipile was put to any practical use in ancient times, and if it was seen as a pragmatic device, a whimsical novelty, an object of reverence, or some other thing. A source described it as a mere curiosity for the ancient Greeks, or a “party trick.”

Also worth mentioning hydraulics here in closing. “A massive temple built to the goddess Diana erected at an impact site had hydraulically activated massive doors that appeared to open on their own to worshipers to reveal the massive image of the goddess inside. Hydraulics was usually used for irrigation in the hilly and mountainous terrain of Greece. Information about hydraulics comes from written accounts and from myth, particularly the myths of Heracles (Hercules). The stopping of floods and the cleaning of the Augean stables are some of the mythic sources of being able to control massive amounts of water.”

Roman underwater concrete

Scientists have found that Roman concrete — which has been submerged underwater for over 2,000 years —  is superior to modern-day concrete.

The strength and longevity of Roman marine concrete is understood to benefit from a reaction of seawater with a mixture of volcanic ash and quicklime to create a rare crystal called tobermorite, which may resist fracturing. As seawater percolated within the tiny cracks in the Roman concrete, it reacted with phillipsite naturally found in the volcanic rock and created aluminous tobermorite crystals. The result is a candidate for “the most durable building material in human history”. In contrast, modern concrete exposed to saltwater deteriorates within decades.

In other words, the Romans mixed lime and volcanic rock to build some of the most durable structures in history. For underwater structures in particular, the combination of lime and volcanic ash mixed with seawater triggered a chemical reaction that cemented the whole mixture together.

In the 20th century, structures were built to last 50 years, while roman structures have survived war, weather, and disasters for over 2,000 years.

Chinese seismoscope, 2nd century

A lot of technological innovations have come out of China, but perhaps their most impressive piece of technology was the first seismoscope. In Chinese, it was referred to as an “instrument for measuring the seasonal winds and the movements of the Earth.”

The beautiful bronze vessel had eight dragon statues, and each dragon held a ball. Directly underneath the dragons were eight bronze toads with open mouths to receive the balls if they fell. When there was an earthquake, one of the dragon statues would drop a ball, which would make a sound and signal where the earthquake was coming from.

This device still puzzles researchers today and it’s not exactly clear how the mechanism worked:

The available text says that inside the vessel was a central column that could move along eight tracks; this is thought to refer to a pendulum, though it is not known exactly how this was linked to a mechanism that would open only one dragon’s mouth. The first earthquake recorded by this seismoscope was supposedly “somewhere in the east”. Days later, a rider from the east reported this earthquake.

The Antikythera mechanism and similar mechanical devices

The Antikythera mechanism is a complex ancient mechanical device discovered in 1901 during the recovery of a shipwreck off of the Greek island, Antikythera, in waters 60 meters deep. The mechanism consists of an elaborate combination of gears, which would seem to make it way ahead of its time in the 2nd century BC.

It is a complex clockwork mechanism composed of at least 30 meshing bronze gears. A team led by Mike Edmunds and Tony Freeth at Cardiff University used modern computer x-ray tomography and high resolution surface scanning to image inside fragments of the crust-encased mechanism and read the faintest inscriptions that once covered the outer casing of the machine.

The device is also referred to as the first analog computer, which makes sense considering what it was used for. The ancient Greeks used this device to “predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendar and astrological purposes decades in advance.”

Detailed imaging of the mechanism suggests that it had 37 gear wheels enabling it to follow the movements of the Moon and the Sun through the zodiac, to predict eclipses and even to model the irregular orbit of the Moon, where the Moon’s velocity is higher in its perigee than in its apogee.

It’s worth noting that ancient writings speak of similar devices, but they either haven’t survived or been rediscovered yet. For example, Cicero’s (106 – 43 BC) De Re Publica contains a description of an advanced orrery (mechanical planetary model).

“‘I shall lay nothing new before you,’ said Philus, ‘nor any thing discovered or thought of by myself. I remember, however, that C. Sulpicius Gallus, a very learned man as you know; when this same phenomenon was stated to have been seen, being by chance in the house of M. Marcellus, who had been in the consulate with him; ordered a sphere to be placed before him, which the ancestor of M. Marcellus had taken from the conquered Syracusans, and brought out of their wealthy and embellished city; the only thing he had possessed himself of among so great a spoil. I had heard a great deal of this sphere, on account of the fame of Archimedes, but did not admire the construction of it so much; for another which Archimedes also had made, and which the same Marcellus had placed in the temple of virtue, was more elegant and remarkable in the general opinion. But subsequently, when Gallus began very scientifically to explain the nature of the mechanism; the Sicilian appeared to me to possess more genius, than human nature would seem to be capable of. Gallus said, that the other solid and full sphere was an old invention, and was first wrought by Thales of Miletus: but afterwards was delineated over with the fixed stars in the heavens by Eudoxus, the Cnidian, a disciple of Plato. The which adorned and embellished as it was by Eudoxus, Aratus who had no knowledge of astronomy, but a certain poetical faculty, many years afterwards extolled in his verses. The mechanism of this sphere, however, on which the motions of the sun, moon, and those five stars which are called wandering and irregular, are shown; could not be illustrated on that solid sphere. But what appeared very admirable in this invention of Archimedes was, that he had discovered a method of producing the unequal and various courses, with their dissimilar velocities, by one revolution. When Gallus put this sphere in motion, the moon was made to succeed the sun by as many revolutions of the brass circle, as it actually took days to do in the heavens. From which the same setting of the sun was produced on the sphere as in the heavens: and the moon fell on the very point, where it met the shadow of the earth, when the sun from the region…’”

Egyptian pin-tumbler door lock, 2,000 BC

Egyptian pin-tumbler lock from Nineveh.

The oldest known evidence of a locking door mechanism was found in the ruins of an ancient Egyptian palatial complex, which dates back to 2,000 BC. The incredible design consisted of a simple but effective pin tumbler lock, and it has been described as:

A wooden bolt securing a door, with a slot with several holes on its upper surface. A device attached to the door contained wooden pins which would drop into the holes and secure the bolt. The key, also wooden, was a large toothbrush–shaped affair, whose ‘bristles’ were actually pegs that matched the holes and pins in the lock. To open the door, it would be inserted into the keyhole located below the pins and lifted, raising the pins and allowing the bolt to be slid out.

The truly incredible part about this ancient door lock is that the core principle of the pin tumbler lock is still used in door locks today (although ancient Egyptian keys were much larger than modern-day keys — the biggest ones discovered were up to 2 feet (0.6 meters) in length). This ancient Egyptian innovation was actually functionally superior to the door lock later developed by the Romans, which was based on a spring rather than a bolt to hold the door in place, and therefore easier to pick.

Roman bronze door lock found with its original key still inside, from Roman Verulamium (modern St Albans).