We take a lot of things for granted in the modern world. Fiber optic cables deliver enormous amounts of information at nearly the speed of light. You can hop into your car and shout your destination at your GPS navigation system, and a digitized and disembodied voice issues easy-to-follow directions. We have it pretty sweet here in the 21st century.
As time marches on, it becomes easier to overlook the contributions of those who came before us. Even in the 19th century, Charles Duell, patent commissioner of the United States, reportedly remarked that everything that can be invented already has been invented [source: Idea Finder].
Clearly, if Duell said such a thing, he was way off. The 20th and 21st centuries have seen enormous booms in ingenuity. However, his alleged words also reveal an understanding that seems to have been lost. He understood that humans have experienced flashes of brilliance and made discoveries throughout history. He also understood that these advances have so greatly accelerated human progress that everything following them seems to be built on the foundation provided by these early inventions.
Perhaps no other ancient culture has contributed more to this advancement of human progress than the Chinese. Here are ten of the greatest inventions of the ancient nation, in no particular order.
We'll begin with arguably the most famous ancient Chinese invention. Legend has it that gunpowder was accidentally discovered by alchemists looking for a concoction that would create immortality in humans. Ironically, what these ancient chemists stumbled upon was an invention that could easily take human life.
Early gunpowder was made of a mixture of potassium nitrate (saltpeter), charcoal and sulfur, and it was first described in 1044 in the Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques, compiled by Zeng Goliang [source: Chinese Embassy in South Africa]. It's assumed the discovery of gunpowder occurred sometime earlier, since Zeng describes three different gunpowder mixtures and the Chinese used it for signal flares and fireworks before appropriating it for military use in rudimentary grenades.
Over time, we realized that metals added to the mixture created brilliant colors in gunpowder explosions and -- kaboom! -- modern fireworks displays were born. It also makes a handy explosive for projectiles like bullets.
Where would we be without the compass? We'd be lost, that's where. Those of us who hike in the woods or fly various aircraft have the Chinese to thank for guiding us home safely.
Originally, the Chinese created their compasses to point to true south. This was because they considered south, not north, their cardinal direction [source: Wright]. The earliest compasses were created in the fourth century B.C. and were made of lodestone.
The mere existence of lodestone is the result of a bit of luck. Lodestone is a type of magnetite (a magnetic iron ore) that becomes highly magnetized when struck by lightning [source: Wasilewski]. The result is a mineral that's magnetized toward both the north and south poles. We're not certain precisely who came up with the clever idea of discerning direction using lodestone, but archaeological evidence shows the Chinese fashioned ladles that balanced on a divining board; the ladles would point the direction to inner harmony for ancient Chinese soothsayers.
It's not entirely clear who first came up with the notion to convert thoughts into a written language. There was a horse race between the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, the Harappa in present day Pakistan and the Kemites in Egypt to be the first to formulate a written language. We do know that the first languages appear to have emerged around 5,000 years ago. One can even make the case that it dates back earlier -- that is, if one included artistic expressions like cave paintings as a form of written language. Once language began to develop, though, humans wrote on anything that would lay still long enough. Clay tablets, bamboo, papyrus and stone were only a few of the earliest writing surfaces.
Things changed once the Chinese -- specifically, a man named Cai Lun -- invented the prototype for modern paper. Before Cai's breakthrough, the Chinese wrote on thin strips of bamboo and lengths of silk, but in A.D. 105, he created a mixture of wood fibers and water and pressed it onto a woven cloth. The weave in the cloth allowed the moisture in the pulpy mixture to seep out, resulting in a rough paper [source: Wisconsin Paper Council]. Exactly what Cai wrote on his first piece of paper is unknown.
Anybody who loves a good bowl of pasta e fagioli or linguine and clams may want to tip his hat to the ancient Chinese for coming up with pasta -- not the Italians, as you may have suspected.
The jury is still out on this one, but it looks like the Chinese beat either the Italians or the Arabs (it's unclear which) by around 2,000 years. In 2006, archaeologists excavating a 4,000 year-old settlement at Lajia in the Qinghai Province near the Tibetian border uncovered an overturned bowl of stringy noodles buried beneath ten feet of earth [source: Roach].
The newly discovered pasta may be the world's oldest. It's made from two types of millet grain, both of which have been cultivated in China for about 7,000 years. What's more, the Chinese still use these grains to make pasta to this day.
The Chinese are also responsible for easing the burden of humans around the world and across time with the wheelbarrow. A general named Jugo Liang, who lived during the Han Dynasty, is widely credited with coming up with the concept of a one-wheeled cart used to carry heavy objects in the second century [source: Krebs and Krebs]. Jugo's conception missed the mark just a bit; he didn't add the barrow (handles) that came later as his invention was refined. Still, Jugo beat the Europeans by about 1,000 years with his wheelbarrow.
Originally, the vehicle was intended for military purposes. Recognizing the physical advantages the wheelbarrow gave its armies over any enemies -- they were used as mobile barricades as well as for transportation -- the Chinese kept their invention secret for centuries.
An old folktale also gives the credit for inventing the wheelbarrow to a farmer from the first century B.C. named Ko Yu [source: Leinhard]. Although his existence is questionable, there is a common thread between Jugo and Ko: Like the general, the farmer is said to have kept the wheelbarrow secret by describing it in code.
Although the Chinese couldn't tell anyone exactly what an earthquake measured on the Richter scale (since the Richter scale wasn't created until 1935), they did manage to invent the world's first earthquake detector -- a seismograph. Not only did imperial astronomer Chang Heng create a seismograph during the Han Dynasty in the early second century, he created a magnificently beautiful one.
Heng's creation was a heavy bronze vessel with nine dragons facing downward embedded into its outside. The dragons were spaced equidistant from one another on the vessel, and below each dragon, a detached frog looked upward as each frog held its mouth open.
Inside the vessel, a pendulum hung motionless until a tremor moved it. At this point, the pendulum's swing set the seismograph's internal levers in motion. This would trigger the release of a ball held in the mouth of the dragon facing the direction of the earthquake's epicenter. The ball would then fall into the mouth of the frog directly below it [source: Xinhua News Agency]. This first seismograph seems a bit basic, but it would be another 1,500 years before Western nations developed their own versions [source: Asia Central].
For many years, it was assumed that alcohol fermentation grew out of other, similar processes. By the early third century B.C., the Chinese had figured out how to refine food products like vinegar and soy sauce using the techniques of fermentation and distillation [source: Huang]. Alcoholic spirits would soon follow.
Recent archaeological discoveries have pushed the date for Chinese fermentation and the creation of alcohol much further back. Nine-thousand-year-old pottery shards uncovered in Henan province show traces of alcohol. This discovery proves that the Chinese were the first to make alcohol, since the previous title holders, the ancient Arabs, didn't come up with alcoholic drinks until 1,000 years later [source: Walter].
Two ancient Chinese men share the credit for coming up with one of China's biggest claims to fame. During the fourth century B.C., Gongshu Ban and Mo Di, a patron of the arts and a philosopher, respectively, constructed bird-shaped kites that dipped and dove in the wind. The pair's novelty caught on quickly.
Over time, the Chinese adapted and added to the initial kite's design and found new uses for it beyond amusement. Kites became an easy way to fish without a boat, simply by using a line and hook draped from the kite and dangling it into an inaccessible body of water. Kites also became instrumental in military applications, serving as unmanned drones that delivered payloads of gunpowder to enemy fortifications. In 1232, the Chinese employed kites to drop propaganda leaflets over a Mongol prisoner-of-war encampment, urging the captured Chinese there to rebel and eventually overtake their captors [source: Pleskacheuskaya].
Soon, the urge to fly would be married with the technology of the kite to produce another Chinese invention, the hang glider.
As we discussed earlier, kites were invented by the fourth century B.C. By the end of the sixth century A.D., the Chinese had managed to build kites large and aerodynamic enough to sustain the weight of an average-sized man. It was only a matter of time before someone decided to simply remove the kite strings and see what happened.
The Chinese were using untethered kites that we know today as hang gliders. However, these "kites" weren't used for thrill rides: Emperors found joy in forcing convicted criminals and captured enemies to jump off cliffs while strapped into the gliders. One poor man flew two miles before he landed safely [source: Wright]. With these early flights, the Chinese had beaten European ingenuity by 1335 years [source: Pleskacheuskaya].
The Mongols, the Byzantines, the Greeks and Romans all found themselves unhappily facing Chinese military innovations like gunpowder. It was silk, however, that helped broker peace between ancient China and other cultures. The demand for silk was so high that the fine fabric helped link China to the outside world through trade [source: Columbia University]. The fabric gave rise to the fabled Silk Road trade routes that eventually stretched from China to the Mediterranean, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
The method for manipulating this silkworm-produced material existed 4,700 years ago. A scroll containing an article on silk production was found in the tomb of created during the Liangzhu period, which lasted from 3330 to 2200 B.C. [source: ChinaCulture.org]. The Chinese closely guarded the origin of silk; they only lost control of their secret when monks from Europe got their hands on silkworm eggs and took them back West [source: Columbia University].
The heyday of Morse code is over, but the communication method of dots and dashes still has a place in our digital world. HowStuffWorks takes a look.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
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