By Tim Lambert
The human race learned to use metals in prehistoric times. Stone age farmers made axes of stone and wood and saws of flint with serrated edges. Metal made it possible to make more efficient axes and saws as well as adzes and chisels. Great improvements were also made in transport. The Egyptians invented the sailing ship about 3,100 BC. The wheel was invented in Sumer (Iraq) about 3,400 BC. It may have been invented first as a potters wheel and later used for transport. The first carts and chariots had solid wheels and oxen or asses pulled them. Horses were domesticated about 2,000 BC and about 1,800 BC spoked wheels were invented.
About 3,500 the ard was invented in Sumeria. It was a kind of light plow. It scratched the soil but did not turn a furrow as a modern plow does. Nevertheless the invention of a simple plow greatly improved agriculture. From about 3,300 BC onward both Sumerians and Egyptians developed writing.
The first people to commonly use iron were the Hittites who lived in what is now Turkey about 1,600 BC. They heated iron ore then pounded out the impurities. When the Hittite Empire broke up about 1,200 BC techniques to iron working spread. By about 650 BC iron working reached England. Some ancient civilizations had quite advanced sanitation. Stone age farmers lived in a village at Skara Brae in the Orkney islands. Some of their stone huts had drains built under them and some houses had cubicles over the drains. They may have been inside toilets.
In the Indus Valley civilization (c.2,600-1,900 BC) streets were built on a grid pattern and networks of sewers were dug under them. Toilets were flushed with water.
On the island of Crete the Minoan civilization flourished from 2,000 to 1,600 BC. They too built drainage systems, which also took sewage. Toilets were flushed with water. Meanwhile glass was invented about 1,500 BC.
The Greeks were superb engineers. The most famous Greek inventor was Archimedes (c.287-212 BC). The Archimedes screw, a device for raising water is named after him (although it many have been used before his time). According to legend the king of Syracuse in Sicily wanted to know if his crown was made of pure gold or not! One day Archimedes sat in his bath and the water level rose. He is supposed to have jumped out of his bath and ran naked through the streets shouting 'Eureka!' (I have it!). Archimedes immersed the crown in water and noted the level the water rose to. Then he placed some pure gold weighing the same as the crown in the water. The water did not rise to the same height proving it was not pure gold. Meanwhile about 400 BC the pulley was invented. In the first century AD Hero of Alexandria invented mechanical toys. He used steam to make a metal ball spin round.
The Ancient Greeks are believed to have invented the watermill. (It was invented separately in China). The Greeks also invented the torsion catapult about 340 BC.Greek engineering reached a peak in the first century AD when they built the Antikythera Mechanism. This remarkable device was discovered in 1900. It seems to be a calculating device to predict the movements of the Sun, Moon and planets. The Romans are famous for their roads and aqueducts. However the Romans were innovators rather than inventors. The Greeks were the true engineering geniuses of the Ancient World.
The Ancient Chinese were also very inventive. About 300 BC the Chinese invented the horse collar. Previously horses were attached to vehicles by straps around their necks. The horse could not pull a heavy load because the strap would constrict its neck! The horse collar allowed horses to pull much heavier loads.
During the Zhou dynasty (1022-221 BC) the Chinese invented kites. The compass was invented in China in the 3rd century BC but at first it was used for divination (a spoon like object made of magnetite was placed on a board and watched to see which way it would turn). It was not used for navigation till much later.
During the Han dynasty (206 BC -220 AD) Chinese civilization was one of the most brilliant in the world. Han inventions include the watermill and the chain pump (this pump was worked by feet and helped to irrigate the rice fields). Another Han invention was the wheelbarrow. The ships rudder was invented in China in the first century AD. According to tradition about 100 AD a man named Cai Lun invented paper (previously people had written on silk or bamboo).
The umbrella was invented in China in the 4th century AD. Covered in oiled paper it sheltered the user from both sun and rain.
The Ancient World