It’s easy to think of technology as an onward march of incremental progress, each development building on what came before. It’s easy to think everything we’ve ever known has been put to use in making something new and everything we use is as advanced as it can get.
It would now seem unimaginable that an archaeological discovery could be more technologically advanced than the society that unearthed it, but that’s not always been the case.
Below, I’ll take you on a brief tour of advanced bits of technology we developed — and then lost.
This rusty box of cogs is actually the world’s oldest analogue computer. Found in an ancient Greek shipwreck in 1901, the Antikythera mechanism would’ve been used to calculate the relative positions of the sun, moon and planets. This is all fairly impressive, considering the Antikythera mechanism was built in the 1st Century BCE. Cicero reported that the great inventor Posidonius had designed such a device, although sadly most examples of Posidonius’s work have been lost.
The next reported analogue computer is the rather excitingly named Cosmic Engine, produced 1000 years later in China by Su Sung. After this was the 12th century Castle Clock, a water-powered zodiac calendar, invented by al-Jazari, a Turkish polymath. The first known European version was the Strasbourg Astronomical Clock, produced in the middle of the 14th century.
Even after rediscovery in 1901, the workings of the Antikythera have only recently been deduced by a team at the University of Cardiff. Obviously, the first thing humanity did on discovering how it worked was make an entire Antikythera Device out of LEGO.
Thanks to Andy Roast for getting in touch with us on twitter to show us this video.
The Steam Engine
The cornerstone of the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries was the steam engine. First produced commercially by Thomas Newcomen and enhanced by James Watt in the UK at the end of the 18th century, the first steam engine had actually been reported by Hero of Alexandria in the 1st century AD, but it may well be 200 years older than that.
The Ancient Greeks, however, never bothered to put their steam engine to use. As far as anyone can tell, Hero’s engine was just used as a toy. It’s considered a bit of a historical “What might have been”: how different would the word be today if the Greeks had had the industrial revolution 2000 years early?
The next recorded use of the steam engine is in the 16th century by an Ottoman Astronomer and inventor called Taqi ad-Din. ad-Din invented an early form of the steam turbine, but instead of using it to power huge factories, he used it to turn the kebabs he was cooking.
If you go to the British Museum in London, you can see the Portland Vase (pictured), made at some point between 1 AD and 25 AD. If you hop on the Piccadilly line at Russell Square and get the tube down to South Kensington, you can see the 1790 AD replica made by Josiah Wedgewood in the V&A Museum.
Wedgewood’s replica was the first time in nearly 1500 years that anybody had made anything out of cameo glass, and it took him 5 years with the most high-tech tools and staff at his disposal to work out how.
There are 15 complete pieces of Roman Cameo glass in existence. The technique involved getting multiple layers of glass, in the case of the Portland Vase a white layer on a black one, and then etching and carving the first layer into shapes onto the second one.
Civilian Supersonic Flight
Remember back in the good old days when you used to be able to get from London to New York in 3 and a half hours? No, me neither, because I was 6 years old and tickets used to cost £5,500: about half the average annual household income in 1995 money.
Growing up in the landing route to Heathrow, though, means that I definitely DO remember watching Concorde fly overhead (and bloody hell the noise it used to make [Video]). Watching a giant flying triangular wedge scream by was one of the things that really got me into science and engineering.
Cool though Concorde was, the designers forgot to make it do one really important thing: make money.
Though the USSR joined in with the TU-144 no one else wanted to touch the idea of supersonic human flight. Since the retirement of the Concorde fleet the idea of civil supersonic has some prototype development, but nothing worth getting excited about has ever been unveiled.
Hopefully — unlike the computer, the steam engine and patterned porcelain — it won’t take 1500 years before we can do that again.
Matt Allinson is currently completing a PhD which he really hopes hasn’t already been written. Tell him to stop wasting time at @arcadia_eg0