Many modern inventions like computers and washing machines actually have their origins in ancient times.
By Zena Kamash
True innovation is hard to find, as few things come out of nothing. Take the now-ubiquitous selfie, for example. The format may have changed but the concept of making self-portraits is hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. The same is true of many inventions that we typically think of as modern, some of which actually have precedents dating back over 1000 years.
An ancient Roman washing machine
“Fulling” was a major occupation in the Roman world that involved cleaning cloth by trampling it in tubs containing an alkaline solution, such as water and urine, or the mineral known as fuller’s earth. But in ancient Antioch, in what is now Turkey, evidence suggests the process may have been mechanized, meaning the Romans may have effectively created the world’s first washing machine as far back as the 1st century AD.
Traditionally thought of as a medieval invention, the mechanical fulling mill would likely have consisted of a waterwheel that lifted a trip-hammer, which would then drop to press the cloth. A fullers’ canal mentioned in an inscription in Antioch would have supplied an estimated 300,000 cubic meters of water at almost a meter per second, far in excess of what was needed for regular foot-powered fulleries. The power this could generate means it could have supported fulling on an industrial scale, with maybe 42 pairs of mechanical hammers.
The top of the monument is decorated with a series of scenes that show a range of baking activities, including the mixing and kneading of dough, the forming of loaves and the baked loaves being stacked in baskets. The most curious part, however, is the cylinders that make up the bulk of the monument. These features have baffled scholars for quite some time. One convincing theory argues that it is likely that these cylinders are related to baking and may well represent an early dough-mixing machine. The idea is that a rotating metal arm would have been attached to each cylinder in order to mix the dough.
The first state space project
Ninth-century Baghdad in what is now Iraq saw the rise of a growing scientific community, particularly in astronomy, centered around a library known as the “House of Wisdom”. The problem for these new scholars was that their books were written many centuries earlier and came from a wide range of different cultures – including Persian, Indian and Greek – that did not always agree. The Caliph al Ma’mun decided the only solution was to build an astronomical observatory so the city’s scholars could determine the truth.
Observatories weren’t new — but a state-sponsored scientific institution was. It’s hard to be sure exactly which instruments were used in the al-Shammasiyya observatory, but they probably included a sundial, astrolabes and a quadrant set on the wall to measure the precise position of objects in the sky. The quadrant may have been the first of its kind to be used in astronomical observations. The scientists used these instruments to reassess Ptolemy’s Mathematical Treatise from the 2nd century AD, and to make numerous astronomical observations, including the latitudes and longitudes of 24 fixed stars.
Zena Kamash is a Lecturer in Roman Art and Archaeology at the Royal Holloway University of London. This article was published in The Conversation and is republished under a Creative Commons License.