When we think of the past, we tend to have the impression that people weren’t as advanced as they are now. It’s easy to feel that all the scientific and technological know-how, the machinery, or the skill that we have now couldn’t have been thought of back then. But, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. Though the past inventions might not compete with the new in some aspects, they certainly can in terms of ingenuity and originality.
The people who preceded us experimented with what they had and invented ways which could effectively and efficiently utilize the resources they possessed. So, here are some such inventions that are older than you think and are a testament to the genius of our ancestors.
1. The seismograph was first invented in 132 CE in China by Zhang Heng of the Han dynasty.
Zhang Heng was a Han Chinese polymath and was a successful scientist, geographer, mathematician, astronomer, and inventor. As the knowledge of tectonic plate movement was unavailable at the time, earthquakes were believed to be the result of disturbances in cosmic yin and yang.
Many learned scholars, including Zhang Heng, believed in the “oracles of the wind” that were part of cosmic operations and predicted events on Earth. Zhang’s views on earthquakes were based on these ideas, and in 132 CE he presented to the Han court the first seismoscope, an invention considered most impressive by many historians.
Zhang’s device named the “earthquake weathervane” was a two-meter-wide bronze vessel with a central column that acted as a pendulum and eight dragon heads with open mouths present equidistant around it. When there was an earthquake, a ball drops out of one of the dragon mouths into a bronze toad at the base indicating the disaster’s direction.
According to Fan Ye’s Book of Later Han compiled in the 5th century, the device could detect the direction of an earthquake from hundreds of miles away which was helped the Han government send aid. On one occasion, no disturbance was felt when the device was triggered, but several days later a rider arrived with news of an earthquake in Longxi, the same direction indicated by the device.(1, 2)
2. Central heating was first used by ancient Greeks and Romans in their homes, the earliest known proof of it dating back to 350 BCE.
Central heating was originally invented by the ancient Greeks. Buildings in ancient Greece and the Roman Empire employed a heating system known as “hypocaust” in which the air heated by furnaces was conducted through empty spaces under the floors and pipes in the walls.
Following the fall of Roman Empire, central heating became obscure, and Europe returned to heating using primitive fireplaces for a thousand years. It wasn’t until the 13th century that central heating was revived in Christian Europe by the Cistern monks using river diversions combined with indoor wood-fired furnaces.(source)
3. Eyeglasses were invented in 1290, and Leonardo da Vinci had the idea of contact lenses in 1508. The first successful contact lenses were made in 1888.
The first mentions of reading aids or reading stones date back to the Greek and Roman times. One such mention is Emperor Nero’s use of emerald. During the early 13th century, English scholar and Bishop of Lincoln Robert Grosseteste wrote of using optics for reading small letters in his treatise De iride (“On the Rainbow“), and in 1262, philosopher and friar Roger Bacon wrote of magnifying properties of lenses.
It was in 1290 that the first corrective eyeglasses were made in northern Italy. Independently, the Chinese used flat panes of smoky quartz as “sunglasses” in the 12th century and the Inuit were already using snow goggles.
In his 1508 Codex of the eye, Manual D, Leonardo da Vinci introduced the idea of contact lenses in which he described a method of changing eye power by submerging the face in a bowl of water or by wearing glass hemispheres filled with water.
The idea, however, was impossible to implement at that time. Though Descartes and Thomas Young tried implementing da Vinci’s idea, it wasn’t until 1888 that German ophthalmologist Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick constructed the first successful lens from a heavy blown glass. The lenses rested on the less sensitive tissue around the cornea and the space between them was filled with a dextrose solution.(1,2)
4. The middle finger gesture has been used since 4th century BCE by ancient Greeks and Romans as an insult.
In Greek, the gesture is called “katapygon” and in ancient Greek comedy was used to insult another person by implying that they were “a man or a woman who submits to anal penetration.” The gesture can be found Aristophanes’s comedies The Clouds in 423 BCE and Peace in 421 BCE.
A famous anecdote by Greek biographer Diogenes Laertius tells of the philosopher and co-founder of cynicism, Diogenes, directing the gesture at the orator Demosthenes in 4th century BCE Athens and calling him a demagogue. In modern times, the usage was traced back to the 1890s in the US by linguist Jesse Sheidlower, which anthropologist Desmond Morris believes probably came with the Italian immigrants.(source)
5. The spring-loaded mousetrap first appeared in 1884 and is still the most effective and inexpensive way to eliminate mice in your house.
The first historical reference to mousetraps can be found in Emblemata by Andrea Alcaiato from 1534. Though there have been several other mentions of mousetraps during 17th and 18th century, it was in 1884 that the conventional mousetrap with a spring-loaded snap mechanism first appeared. Before the mechanical trap, the mice were caught by professional rat-catchers.(1,2)