Technology is great, but today’s technology often becomes tomorrow’s ecological disaster. The issues we face today, such as pollution and industrial waste, global warming, and atomic weapons, are often the direct result of yesterday’s technological advances. Perhaps we should be a little less egotistical about our modern state of knowledge. The fact is, our ancestors were much smarter than we give them credit for, and they had some rather ingenious and surprising technology.
For example, windmills are all the rage today for green power production—but the good people of Holland were using them hundreds of years ago to reclaim land from the sea so it could be farmed to support their growing population. Long dikes or causeways were built to wall in a shallow area of the sea, and once the sea was surrounded by a land wall, windmills were built to operate water screws that lifted the ocean water up, over, and past the dikes, creating new land for farming. Knowing so well how to put wind power to work, it is no wonder the small country of Holland was one of the greatest trading nations in the days of sail!
At the Qutab mosque in Delhi, India, there is a pillar of iron 23 feet tall weighing 13,000 pounds, dating to the reign of the Gupta monarchs about 400 AD. The pillar is cylindrical, tapering from about 17 inches in diameter at the base to about 12 inches at the top, and was constructed by welding successive layers of iron. The most unusual thing about this pillar (besides its massive size) is that in the last 1,400 years, it has suffered almost no corrosion, thanks to an unusual metallurgical composition that includes high levels of phosphorus. The surface oxidizes to rust as other iron does, but the rust forms a unique weatherproof barrier that prevents the rust from penetrating any deeper into the metal. This metallurgic technology seems well ahead of its time.
Another stunning example of ancient technology is the Antikythera mechanism. Found in 1901 in a sunken Roman galley, this device tantalized scientists with its handmade bronze clockwork mechanism that was far older than any known mechanical clock. Though mechanical clocks were not developed in Europe until the beginning of the 13th century, the Antikythera mechanism dates to 100-150 BCE. As scientists have continued to study the workings of the device, which contains over 30 gears, its purpose has become more clear. The Antikythera mechanism was an astronomical calculator, capable of predicting the locations and phases of the sun, the moon, and the five classical planets. It was also capable of predicting eclipses. Clearly, Greek knowledge of mechanical devices was better than we thought!
There are many other historical items that remain tantalizing mysteries, from the so-called “Baghdad battery,” to the giant sculpted and stacked stones of Sacsayhuamán in Peru that used no mortar, and you can’t even slip a piece of paper between, even the unknown incendiary weapon called “Greek fire” that was used in 672 AD. Our ancestors had better technology than we know, and sometimes, they knew more than we do yet today.