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Modern Discoveries with Surprisingly Ancient Roots
In a typical workday, you probably use a computer, commute to work in your car, and then unwind at the end of the day by watching an episode of your favorite forensic crime drama. But surprisingly, everything that seems modern about that day-to-day routine is actually quite ancient.
Cars, computers, and even forensic science have been around for centuries longer than most people realize. Don’t believe us? Here are some prime examples of “modern” ideas that originated in the ancient world.
Forensic science is a modern discipline used to solve crimes, and was also used to keep David Caruso’s career on life support. But despite what you might have seen on “CSI,” you don’t need a high-tech lab to do forensic work.
Modern forensic science has its roots in 13th century China, where a lawman named Song Ci was asked to help solve the murder of a rural rice farmer. After examining the body, Song Ci was able to determine that the murder weapon was a sickle. But in a community where nearly everyone was a farmer, there was a sickle hanging in every shed.
To solve the crime, Song Ci had every farmer in the village bring their sickles to the center of town. Each farmer placed their own sickle at their feet, and waited for further instruction. Minutes later, Song Ci knew definitively who had killed the man.
His secret? In the hot afternoon sun, carrion-loving blowflies gathered on the blade of one farmer’s sickle. Song Ci theorized that there were traces of blood still on the blade. Even though the blood couldn’t be seen with the naked eye, the flies were still attracted to minute traces on the surface of the weapon.
The man confessed to the crime, and Song Ci went on to write the groundbreaking book “Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified,” the world’s first forensics manual.
Surgery (With Extra Butter)
Here’s a scary thought: widespread use of antiseptics during surgery didn’t occur until the end of the 19th century. But despite the risk of infection, people have been successfully performing major surgeries since Roman times.
The ancient physician Galen (who was also a doctor to the gladiators) reportedly undertook both brain and eye surgery between 162 and 217 AD. But before Galen, there was the Indian physician Sushruta, who lived around 800 BC: he mastered surgeries like rhinoplasty and cataract removal.
But unlike most modern doctors, Sushruta was an adherent of Julia Child’s famous cooking philosophy: nothing can ever have too much butter.
Sushruta was known to follow up cataract surgery by basting the patient’s eyes in warm clarified butter to stave off infection.
Treating blindness with buttery goodness is definitely a treatment you won’t be seeing on “Grey’s Anatomy” anytime soon (though it wouldn’t be surprising if it shows up in the next film about Hannibal Lecter.)
Even though birth control pills didn’t become available to American women until the 1960s, women in ancient Rome and Babylon were perfectly in control of their choice to have a child.
Their secret? A plant called Silphium. Never heard of it? That’s because those greedy Romans harvested it to the point of extinction. When taken orally, Silphium could both prevent and end a pregnancy (fans of the action-packed “Spartacus” TV series might remember the episode where Ilithyia obtains some for her personal use.) Sadly, Silphium only grew in one part of the Roman Empire: once it was gone, it was gone for good.
But for women who didn’t have access to this magic herb, there was another way to determine if they were pregnant. Despite the fact that Americans didn’t develop the technology for an at-home pregnancy test until the 1970s, women in ancient Babylon had access to these tests as early as 700 BC.
After combining a special type of plant sap with a colorless metallic compound, the Babylonians would spread the resulting mixture over pieces of white cloth. In essence, they had created a pH test: if it changed color when urinated upon, then the woman was pregnant.
Forget “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader.” We want to see a game show called “Are You Smarter Than a Babylonian.” Those people were geniuses!
Crude telescopes weren’t invented until the 1600s. The Hubble didn’t go into orbit until 1990. And yet, people in ancient China were making shocking accurate observations about solar astronomy all the way back in the 4th century.
The Chinese astronomer Gan De was something of a genius, though he’s largely forgotten today. Without a telescope, he was able to make observations of Jupiter with the naked eye, and claimed to have also seen one of its moons. He also created one of the earliest surviving catalogues of stars in the night sky. His understanding of sun spots predated Galileo’s work by centuries.
Even cooler: he could see that solar winds had an effect on comets. We know today that comet tails always point away from the sun: Gan De was likely the first person to notice and understand this phenomenon.
To put his work in perspective, consider this: the Einstein Tower (a solar observatory) wasn’t operational until 1924, some 1,400 years after Gan De’s death. Too bad there was never an episode of “Doctor Who” where Wilf meet Gan De: they would have had a lot to talk about.
Granted, ancient computers couldn’t check email or let you watch the latest episode of “Doctor Who,” but they were still quite advanced. If you define a computer as “a device that speedily performs advanced calculations,” then one of the finest analog computers from the ancient world was the Antikythera mechanism.
Found by a sponge diver way back in 1900, it took us a century to understand what this corroded old device was supposed to do. This vastly complex device is composed of 30 sets of complex gears, and was built in the 1st century BC. It is theorized that his mysterious device was used to predict the positions of the sun and moon: a sort of astronomy-meets-astrology device.
This was constructed at least a hundred years before the death of Augustus Caesar. And yet, it was so advanced that nothing similar to it would be developed until the 1400s. Meanwhile, the rest of us are lucky if we can find a seashell or a quarter when we make a trip to the beach. That sponge diver was pretty lucky.
If your grandparents drove a massive Buick or Cadillac sedan, you might have heard them call it a “land yacht” because of its large size. But a very different kind of land yacht once roamed the roads of China. As early as the 500s, the Chinese were using “sailing carriages” (like the one seen in the image at the top of this article) to travel around their country. Think of them as proto-cars, the world’s first “green” automobile.
A segment on the History Channel program “Ancient Discoveries” showed that the concept worked…provided there was a stiff breeze, anyway.
Inventor Zhang Heng lived during the 2nd century AD, but was able to master a surprisingly complex scientific discipline: seismography. He invented the world’s first seismometer about 2,000 years ago, despite the lack of modern conveniences available to him.
While he did believe that the cause of earthquakes had more to do with an imbalance between yin and yang than with tectonic plates, Zhang Heng still developed an impressive device, pictured above. It could point towards the epicenter of a quake, and was successfully used in 133 AD to detect a tremor that originated 250 miles away.
Everyone who’s seen “Apocalypse Now” knows that Kilgore loved the smell of napalm in the morning. Funny enough, ancient soldiers loved it, too. That’s right, Napalm wasn’t a 20th century invention: soldiers used an ancient variant of napalm as far back as the 600s.
Called Greek fire, this sticky substance was developed by the Byzantine Empire. It was particularly prized for naval warfare, since water could not extinguish the flames. The exact recipe is disputed, but this early form of napalm likely contained resin, sulphur, and naptha (a crude form of petroleum.) In other words, Walter Sobchak would have been equally at home in Vietnam or fighting a battle in the ancient Near East.