Though humans — in our most evolved form — have lived on Earth for 200,000 years, advanced civilizations have only been around for the past several thousand. Historians dedicate their lives to unraveling the secrets behind these complicated societies, but there’s still so much that’s unknown about these ancient peoples.
One of the biggest mysteries is the technological capability of these civilizations. Over the years, historians, archaeologists, and other experts responsible for uncovering the past have been shocked by some of the advanced inventions they’ve pulled from the ground. Some of their more exciting finds could completely re-write history as we know it!
1. Ever heard of the Great Wall of Texas? This structure is at least 200,000 to 400,000 years old. A group of farmers in Rockwall Co., Texas, unearthed this lost site in 1852 while they were digging a well.
There are debates within the scientific community about whether or not the wall was manmade. Because the rocks are similarly magnetized, some researchers think the structure is actually a natural geologic formation.
2. When a French factory opened its shipment of uranium ore from Oklo, Gabon Republic, they were shocked: The uranium had already been extracted from the rocks. This is something that is very unlikely to occur naturally.
Uranium needs specific conditions to be extracted from ore. There’s a theory that the uranium in Oklo came from a nuclear reactor that operated 1.8 billion years ago. We’re not scientists, but this doesn’t scream factual to us.
3. German archaeologist Wilhelm Konig discovered a pair of 2000-year-old batteries in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1938. These archaic batteries were made from clay jars complete with asphalt stoppers and iron rods. The craziest thing?
They actually work. When the batteries were functional, they could generate more than a volt of electricity. The next time you’re tired of paying your electric bill, consider trying out a setup like this to save some cash.
4. In a cave near Mount Baigong, China, researchers made an amazing discovery — 150,000-year-old-pipes. These led from a large room in the cave to a lake, meaning they were very likely an ancient form of plumbing.
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A geology fellow from China’s Earthquake Administration analyzed material from the tubes and found that some of it was extremely radioactive. Some of the material couldn’t be identified by researchers either.
5. One of earliest maps of Antarctica was drawn in 1513 by Turkish admiral Piri Reis. The map depicts a coastline that lies far to the south of South America. The odd thing? Antarctica wasn’t covered in ice.
Captain Lorenzo W. Burroughs, a U.S. Air Force captain confirmed that the coastline in the ancient map matched modern-day Antarctica’s (now concealed by water). It’s impressive that Piri Reis created such an accurate model so long ago.
6. The Greeks created something called the Antikythera Mechanism to determine the position of major heavenly bodies, like the sun and the planets. This 2000-year-old machine can make complex calculations with high accuracy and put them to good use.
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“If it hadn’t been discovered … no one would possibly believe that it could exist because it’s so sophisticated,” said Tony Freeth, mathematician. The Antikythera even helped determine when to hold the Olympics.
7. A special Viking sword, Ulfbert, was a stunning discovery for archaeologists. It was such a technologically complicated sword, scientists thought it was 800 years older than it actually was. (By the way, being a sword scientist would be a very cool job).
Blacksmith Richard Furrer attempted to recreate the sword using Middle Age-style forges and other techniques. Richard successfully made his own Ulfbert, but said it was the most complicated weapon he’d ever created.
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8. One of the oldest bridges in the world was a million-year-old structure that stretched between India and Sri Lanka. This build was supposedly constructed by King Rama, if you believe the long-standing Indian stories.
There’s a debate among researchers whether this bridge actually existed. Some geologists believe there are patterns on the boulders to indicate artificial movement, but others argue that satellite imagery proves it’s natural.
9. When three California friends found an odd object inside of a geode in 1961, they knew they had a serious mystery on their hands. They took the rock to a geologist who identified the material as 500,000 years old.
Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times
In the middle was what appeared to be a spark plug. The rock-discoverers thought they’d found proof of a secret technologically advanced civilization. The geode, called the Coso artifact, has since been lost, so it looks like we’ll never know the truth.
10. Get back to work! A construction crew in Aix-en-Provence, France, came across an ancient job site. While they were digging, they found tools encased in limestone, 50 feet below the surface of the ground.
The wood in the tools had morphed into agate during their time under the earth. Because the limestone formed quickly around the materials, they were preserved. Without this, they would have withered into nothing.
And a lot of what we use today dates back to Ancient Greece, an archaeologists day dream. Maps weren’t invented until the Greeks came along. These people produced the first cartographer, who went on to make the first map of the entire world.
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2. Spiral Staircase: If there’s anything that sets humans apart from other species, its our capacity to build staircases that are not brutishly straight, but rather, spiral elegantly. The Greeks placed theirs in temples way back when.
3. Alarm Clock: These nifty devices are necessary for anyone who needs to get to work on time, and the first iterations came about in Ancient Greece. Known as clepsydras, or “water thieves,” they measured time through the controlled flow of H2O.
4. Cheesecake: Anyone who loves to indulge in this carb-lovers’ dream has the Greeks to thank, as they made the first of these delicious desserts using cheese, honey, and spring wheat flour.
5. Vending Machine: Every red-blooded American loves themselves a good vending machine snack. Those sneaky Greeks were also the first to create these modern miracles, but theirs dispensed holy water rather than Funyuns and Doritos.
6. Shower: Ever taken a shower? Well then you better be getting down on your knees and thank whatever god you pray to that the Greeks had the foresight to create these body cleaning devices.
7. Plumbing: The Greeks were the first to have a system of underground pipes channeling water through them, something that makes sense given that they also had showers. Where would we be without them? Likely dirty and alone.
8. Lighthouse: The lighthouse constructed in the Greek-founded city of Alexandria was located on a small island called Pharos in Egypt. Due in part to its impressive height (120 meters tall) was actually one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
9. Automatic Doors: These things are great for when you just can’t expend the energy to push or pull. The Greeks were the first to create these handy devices. The system used hydraulics and water pressure.
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10. Central Heating: Although the Greeks were the first to create a central heating system, it was run by slave labor. Enslaved people had to keep fires burning in order to produce hot air that would subsequently send hot water running through the pipes.
11. Urban Planning: The process of designing cities in an organized, efficient, and aesthetically pleasing manner is an extremely important to quality urban life. The Greeks were the first to recognize this and master it.
12. Astrolabe: This device provides navigators with astronomical measurements, including the identification of stars and planets. It was invented by the man who can also add the founding of trigonometry to his resume. Quite the multitasker.
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13. Computer: While not a computer in today’s sense of the word, the Greeks did construct a gadget that was used to calculate astrological events. It was found by divers investigating a shipwreck in 1901.
14. Catapult: Catapults aren’t only useful for producing hilarious animated gags in children’s shows; they’re also an incredibly handy battle tool. This projectile weapon can fling like nobody’s business.
15. Anchor: The Greeks created the first rudimentary anchor out of buckets filled with boulders. It wouldn’t be until later that they took on that iconic shape tattooed onto so many upper arms.
16. Archimedes Screw: This one may be fairly obvious because of the name, but in any case this impressive tool was a product of Ancient Greece and transferred water from low places up into irrigation systems. Nifty!
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17. Odometer: An odometer tells you how far you’ve traveled and how rundown your car might be. Of course, for all their prowess the Greeks never got around to inventing cars. Pathetic.
18. Clock Tower: In addition to the alarm clock, these guys also created the first clock tower. Dating back to 100 BC, the actual device is now gone but the tower itself remains, a relic of ancient times.
19. Watermill: The first watermill was also of Greek creation. Although it was quite simple at the time, its conception led to an increased prominence of goods such as homemade bread in Greek society.
20. Steam Engine: Heron of Alexandria, the man who also invented the vending machine and automatic doors, conceived of the first-ever steam engine. He certainly was a person of many talents.
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These inventions are all extremely useful to this day, and some might even say necessary. However not all historical creations have held up as well. Take for example this 1935-era bed piano. Probably wouldn’t be as useful in the age of Netflix and chilling.
2. Television Glasses: Hugo Gernsback, the man known today as “The Father of Science Fiction,” dared to dream of strapping a television set to his face in 1963 — so he made it happen (and later inspired future 3D glasses, too).
3. Man from Mars Radio Hat: Speaking of entertainment on your head, in 1949, Victor T. Hoeflinch created this hat, which allowed wearers to listen to the radio on the go, so long as they didn’t mind wearing a hat that wasn’t exactly a fashion statement.
4. Dimple Maker: In the ’30s, a smile was nothing without a set of dimples to go with it. But the dimple-less were not the hopeless: the Dimple Maker could force dimples onto their smiles by digging into their cheekbones. It did not work well.
5. The First PET Scan Device: As if going in for a PET scan wasn’t scary enough, the first machine capable of performing one was this wire-wrapped monstrosity, developed at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.
6. Portable Sauna: Back in 1962, a Finnish inventor realized that being unable to step into a sauna wherever he went was comparable to actual torture. So he created the portable sauna so he could live every moment in hot, steamy bliss.
7. Sunscreen Vending Machine: Tennis courts, swimming pools, and beaches of the 1940s offered this vending machine, which dispensed little globs of sunscreen right into your hands. Honestly, weird as this was, it could come in handy today!
8. Cone Mask: The inventor of these masks wanted to protect the wearers’ faces from things like hail and rain. Somehow, getting pelted with rain was a big enough problem that he couldn’t just, you know, tilt his head down like three inches
9. Pedal Skates: In 1913, Charles A. Nordling understood people look for any excuse possible not to walk, so he created the pedal skates. A bit cumbersome, yeah, but unlike many other items on this list, they nobly served their purpose for a while.
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10. Cigarette Pack Holder: Because smoking one cigarette at a time was totally inefficient (and totally lame by 1950’s standards), this 1955 invention allowed smokers to stop dreaming about chain smoking an entire pack and start doing it.
11. All-Terrain Car: Invented in 1936, this English automobile ascended and descended slopes as steep as 65 degrees. With, what, 12 tires, it must have cost an absolute fortune to manufacture. Speaking of all-terrain…
12. Cyclomer: With six flotation devices, the cyclomer — also called “The Amphibious Bike — was designed to function on land and in water. In practice, it was clunky on dry land, borderline deadly in the water, and no one liked it much.
13. Goofybike: So the cyclomer didn’t catch on, but that wasn’t the end of all bike-alteration efforts. The Goofybike — seen in Chicago, 1939 — sat four people, one of which worked a sewing machine that kept the bike’s weight evenly distributed.
14. Pedestrian Shield: To reduce fatalities, inventors drummed up a shield reminiscent of a train’s cowcatcher to slap on the front of automobiles. It doesn’t look like a much better alternative to the front of a car.
15. Fax Newspaper: Imagine just wanting to catch up on your daily news and waiting (and waiting) for the darn newspaper fax to show up! Cool, but a paperboy standing on the corner was probably more efficient.
16. Shower Hood: Marketed as a way to keep your makeup intact, the shower hood prevented water from hitting your hair or face, which kind of defeated the major purpose of taking a shower altogether.
17. The Baby Dangler: Today, naming your device “The Baby Dangler” would make your peers mock you at best and land you in prison at worst; but back in the day, it was the perfect name for a device that strung up a baby between mom and dad.
18. A Radio-Controlled Lawn Mower: The lawn’s not going to mow itself, so why not invent a small mower operated with a remote control? Developed in the 1950s — and later celebrated by British royalty — the device survived time and still exists!
19. Ice Mask: There were plenty of reasons to drink in the 1940s, and inventors knew it. That’s why one developed the ice mask, which advertisers touted as a cure for the morning hangover.
20. Wooden Bathing Suits: These barrel-like suits were invented in 1929 and, allegedly, acted like flotation devices for swimming (wood floats, after all). But they must have been restrictive!