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10 Incredible Ancient Technologies that were Way Ahead of their Time

6. A 1,600-year-old Roman chalice, the “Lycurgus Cup,” shows that Roman artisans were nanotechnology pioneers. They’d impregnated the glass with particles of silver and gold as small as 50 nanometers in diameter.

Lycurgus Cup
Lycurgus Cup. Image Credit: Wikipedia, Flickr

This ancient jade-green cup appears red when lit from behind. Scientists believe that the Romans may have been the first ones to come across the colorful potential of nanoparticles by accident, but they sure perfected it! This amazing property of the Lycurgus Cup puzzled scientists for decades when the cup was acquired by the British Museum in the 1950s. It was not until 1990 that the mystery was solved.

Researchers studied broken fragments of the cup under the microscope and discovered that the ancient Romans had created the glass with silver and gold particles that were ground to be as small as 50 nanometers in diameter. This was less than one-thousandth the size of a salt grain. This suggests that the Romans knew what they were doing, meaning they had knowledge of nanoparticles!

The way it worked was when the light hit the cup, the electrons belonging to the particles of the cup vibrate in ways that alter the color depending on the position of the observer. So. when different liquids would be poured into the cup, the electrons would behave differently, and the color would change. This is exactly how home pregnancy tests work. (1, 2)

7. Heron of Alexandria was the first to create a programmable robot to entertain audiences at the theatre. The device could move on its own and even change directions! He also invented the first vending machine, syringe, and windwheel among others.

Hero of Alexandria was surely the “Tony Stark” of his time. Many of his creations were the first to have existed. He has been known to create the first vending machine, syringe, force pump, fountain, etc. He is also said to have created a windwheel operating an organ making it the first instance in history where wind energy was used to run a machine.

But the most astonishing of all was the mechanical device that has been termed as the world’s first robot. The device was used to entertain the audience in the theatre. It had the ability to play by itself for almost ten minutes and was powered by a binary-like system of ropes, knots, and simple machines.

The entire structure was operated by a rotating cogwheel that was cylindrical in shape. In the video above, the device has been recreated by New Scientist, a media company. (source)


8. The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, built by the people of Malta and Gozo, has incredible acoustic properties. The structure is said to amplify voices dramatically with certain frequencies resonating enough to be felt through the body.

The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is a 6,000-year-old underground burial chamber located on the Mediterranean island of Malta. Archaeologists believe that this underground structure was built by the people of Malta and Gozo around 4000 BCE.

It was used for the purpose of ritualizing life and death. The structure consists of a large network of cavities and corridors. But the thing that has attracted experts to the site is the amazingly unique acoustic properties of the underground chamber.

Hal Saflieni Hypogeum
Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Image Credit: Richard Ellis via Wikipedia

Amidst all the chambers and corridors, there exists a special chamber that has been carved out of solid limestone. This is the chamber that produces unique sound properties. Known as the “Oracle Chamber,” any sound made in the chamber gets magnified a hundredfold.

Also, the sounds made in the chamber can be heard throughout the structure. According to William Arthur Griffiths, author of Malta and its Recently Discovered Prehistoric Temples, such acoustic properties were created so that when the oracle spoke from the chamber, the words would resonate throughout the structure with terrifying impressiveness.

At certain places within the Hypogeum, certain frequencies or pitches of sound vibrates into the bones and tissues as much as resonating in the ear. Richard Storm, the Sarasota arts and architecture critic, explains the sensation as, “Because you sense something coming from somewhere else you can’t identify, you are transfixed.”

Scientists are still working on whether the underground structure was intentionally made to produce such acoustic wonders or it was just an accident. But in case, it was intentional, and that means that the ancient engineers of Malta knew something that modern scientists have not grasped yet. (source)

9. The 2,000-year-old ancient Roman concrete is far better than the present day concrete. It is more durable and also environmentally friendly.

Roman concrete
Ancient Roman concrete vault in Rome. Image Credit: Michael Wilson via Wikipedia

Experts today are fascinated by the longevity of the ancient Roman concrete structures. These cement structures are more than 2,000 years old, but they are still sturdy. The harbor structures, even after being washed by sea waves for so long, have not shown a single sign of erosion. Take into account our modern cement structures. They just give out after a few decades.

Finally, researchers led by geologist Marie Jackson from the University of Utah were able to study the chemistry involved in the ancient Roman concrete, and they have uncovered some astonishing properties. Not only is the Roman concrete is more durable than modern cement, it even gets stronger with time! The researchers studied the crystalline structure of the cement and were able to discover precisely how the cement solidifies over time.

Inside the panteon in Rome
Inside the Pantheon in Rome. Image Credit: Jean-Christophe via Wikipedia

Modern concrete is a typically a mixture of silica sand, limestone, clay, chalk and other ingredients that are melted together at insanely high temperatures. The final product is made inert so that no chemical reactions can take place that might lead to erosion. This is the reason why concrete does not last as long as natural rocks.

On the other hand, ancient Roman concrete was created with volcanic ash, lime, and seawater. The Romans took advantage of the chemical reactions they may have observed in tuff rocks, which are naturally cemented volcanic ash deposits. More volcanic rock was mixed in with the volcanic ash which would lead to more reactions making the concrete more durable.

The researchers also found out that a very rare mineral known as aluminous tobermorite and a related mineral called phillipsite was found in abundance in the concrete. Note that these minerals were not added but were formed within the cement as a result of the natural chemical reactions. “The Romans created a rock-like concrete that thrives in open chemical exchange with seawater,” says Jackson. (source)

10. Damascus steel used to make blades hold high reputation even today for their toughness and resistance to shattering. They are known to have had the ability to cut through a rifle barrel and to cut a hair falling across the blade.

Damascus steel hunting knife
Damascus steel hunting knife. Image Credit: Rich Bowen via Flickr

The Damascus steel is a legendary material that has been widely used by warriors of the past, including the Crusaders.

The remarkable characteristics of the legendary steel became famous when the Crusaders traveled to the Middle East in the early 11th century. People were astonished by the unique properties of the blades.

It is said that the swords made from this metal had the ability to split a feather in midair! Moreover, these swords retained their sharp edges even after being in numerous battles. The swords were easily recognized by a characteristic watery or ”damask” pattern on their blades.

Damascus Bowie style knives
A set of Carter Cutlery Damascus Bowie style knives. Image Credit: Murray Carter via Wikipedia

The armorers who made swords, shields, and armor from Damascus steel have been secretive of their method throughout the ages. But with the advent of firearms, the secret was lost.

Fast forward a few centuries, people have been trying to re-create the Damascus steel through reverse engineering. This means that during a time of self-driving cars, we are still unable to decode technologies used by our ancestors. (source)


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