Top 10 inventions that are older than you think

The theme of the UK National Science and Engineering week for 2013 was… inventions! And inventing, and inventors and inventresses, and all things associated with making, designed and building new products. We here at science made simple have ergo dedicated this month’s Top Ten blog to inventions which are probably older than you think they are.


1.    Boat screws

The giant screws that propel a lot of today’s boats and submarines developed into their modern form through the industrial revolution; however the design evolved out of more ancient technology. The Archimedes Screw was a way for the Greeks to move water around easily, in particular to move it upwards from a starting point.  When this idea is applied to a sideways facing screw in the water, it pushes the water one way and, according to Newton’s third law, pushes the screw (and attached boat) the other way.

The shape of the screw allows objects to be pushed against water, or in this case, water to be pushed uphill. Photo: Ray Jones CC-BY-SA


Vending Machine. Photo: Public Domain

2.    Hero’s vending machine

Another one from the Ancient Greeks. Rather than being used to make money from food (spoilage, for one thing, would have been an issue), it was intended to stop freeloaders nicking all the holy water at a temple. The elegant design involved the coin triggering a counterweight that would pull out the stopper on a bottle of holy water, dispensing it to the worshipper. The coin would then fall off into a holding tin, causing the stopper to block the bottle up again.




3.    Hero’s turbine

The earliest steam powered turbine still has its basic principles applied today in power plant dynamos.  A fire would be started underneath a copper container full of water; the heat would boil the water and the resulting steam would shoot out of two vents – causing the container to spin around and around on its hinges.

The Greeks, having invented it, missed a trick by not doing anything useful with all the energy it was producing. It would be centuries before this idea was applied to doing hard graft, first as a way to power water pumps and then to power trains and boats.

4.    Compass

The Chinese were all over this one, having grasped the basic idea of magnetic materials shortly before the BC/AD switchover, and eventually coming around to the idea that having a magnetic needle floating in water would help them navigate at night or in fog.

An ancient chinese compass. Photo: Type CC-BY-SA

5.    Seismometer

Another Chinese invention, this was basically designed as a humanitarian device in royal courts.  A delicately balanced ball in a statue was designed to be dislodged by the tremors of an earthquake.  It would be dislodged in one of four directions, depending on what direction the earthquake emanated from – letting the rulers know which direction to send help.


6.  Ballistics, rifling & the Swiss army knife

In the times of pre-history, the Atlatl was a stick which essentially acted as a lever to propel darts faster and further in hunting.  Australian Aborigines used woomeras, which threw full sized spears but could also carry food and sometimes had a blade attached.  The Greeks used a version with a leather strap to propel javelins in battle and the Olympics; the strap also allowed them to add spin for accuracy.

Here’s a video of a woomera being used to throw a spear.


7.    Flamethrower

Greek Fire. Photo: Unknown, Public Domain

The Byzantines lucked out when a Syrian refugee gave them the recipe for Greek Fire, a destructive combustible fluid which burned even on water.  They put it to use as a naval and siege weapon, heating it up and then using pumps attached to a siphon to spray it at enemy ships.  It helped the empire survive Arab invasions during the 7th & 8th centuries. However, the formulation for it is not known.



8.    Odometer

The foundation of accurate measurement between cities, this Greek invention functioned like a complicated trundle-wheel.  It was figured out that 4 foot chariot wheels would turn 400 times in a Roman mile.  Every time the wheel turned, a pin would turn a cog on the axle, which would spin a drum filled with pebbles.  Every 400 turns, a pebble would fall out of the drum into a container; counting up the pebbles at the end would give you the distance.  Some ancient Greek measurements between cities have been found to be accurate to within 1% of the modern measured distance.

An ancient chinese horse cart to measure distance. Photo: Unknown, Public Domain

The Chinese also developed their own version independently a century or two later; similar in design, instead of dropping stones, mechanical figures would strike a drum every 500m and strike a gong every 5km.


9.    Books (codex)

Wax Tablet. Photo: Andreas Praefcke, Public Domain

The Romans developed the codex, the original bound book in the style we are decreasingly using today.  Prior to this, scrolls had been the go-to way for the written word.  The book came out of wax tablets that were used for taking rough notes – eventually people began to bind these together with a central connector.  This was later supplanted with papyrus, giving a more familiar appearance to the modern paper book.


10.    Shower

There was a giant gap in history between the Greek & Roman empires until Victorian times where there was no reliable plumbing in houses, and therefore no showers, thankfully now a days we have services like the ones from Ace plumbers Worcester.  But the Greeks had used their aqueducts to simulate bathing in a waterfall without needing servants to carry water in and pour it over you.  In big, communal shower rooms, water was pumped through lead piping and flowed out of valves onto members of the public.  The Romans later used these in their ubiquitous bath houses.


So there you have it – some hidden gems and precursors to our modern life that have reamined partially hidden in history.


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