Technological developments.

Hello good people,

What ideas/implementations should or could humanity have discovered earlier?

My pennysworth is the mechanical computer ala Babbage.


The Greeks did invent a surprisingly complicated analogue computer dubbed the Antikythera mechanism. It is one of the only ‘out of place’ artifacts that has been scientifically confirmed.

Here is what it looks like reconstructed:

My nomination are stirrups. It is a key component in horse riding tackle so it is hard to imagine why all societies that depended heavily on horseback travel did not invent them independently yet most didn’t and the stirrup wasn’t widely adopted until very late in history. Even the ancient Roman saddles did not have them. They were not widely adopted in Europe until 500 - 600 AD.

Indeed they did and a wonderful device it was, but it was very singular in it’s wonder, as far as we know.

A long time ago I was fascinated by technology that it is likely that was forgotten like the early Babylonian batteries, one interesting item was regarding ancient statues that emitted noises or even voices.

No, not the work of aliens like that darned “researcher” on the History Channel rants about. More likely someone was hiding somewhere, or it was the work of the wind like with the Collosi of Memnon; but I always thought that if the ancients could do the Antikythera mechanism, then making a gramophone would had been child’s play back in those ancient days.

Germ theory. It took about 200 years between discovering microbes and realizing they caused diseases.

Hero of Alexandria created a lot of steam powered stuff, including a working steam engine. Unfortunately he considered it to be nothing more than an interesting toy. Basically, though, he had all of the stuff necessary to really start the industrial revolution around 50 AD but he just didn’t quite put it all together. Instead, we had to wait until the 1700s for it to really take off.

As far as I know Heros engine consisted of a heated water filled sphere(s?) with directed outlets for the steam to rotate the gymbal/pivot mounted device.
Bit of a leap of faith to up-engineer!

Hero of Alexandria’s steam engine was nothing more than an interesting toy. And it still is nothing more than a toy. There’s no path from that to something like Watt’s steam engines.

And in fact, you could have proper sanitation (which is the really important bit that comes out of germ theory) even without actually knowing of microbes. The idea that disease is caused by some sort of “filth” is pretty old; one would think that it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch that washing away the filth would prevent disease, and likewise not too much of a stretch to notice that some substances, like alcohol, did a better job than just soap and water.

Miasma was the condition of the atmosphere through which illnesses were transmitted. Took a chap in Soho to realize that a Cholera epidemic was tied to a specific water supply.

Actually I suppose the question is about the initial, consistent use of scientific method.


Yeah, it wasn’t a steam engine like the ones that actually did useful work.

Except Babbage was ahead of the ability of the time to build such a thing.

How about the balloon. The ability to create a reasonably airtight balloon was there long before the late 18th century, and the only other thing you needed was fire to create the hot air.

Many discoveries happen soon after the technology needed to create them exists. The telescope and microscope followed hard on improved glass blowing and polishing methods.

Along with stirrups, I will nominate the horse collar - not in wide use in Europe until 1200 AD.

Thank you Voyager, not just the idea of aerial observation but also reporting back what you’ve seen.

Probably demands a thread of it’s own about whether Peace or Conflict has pushed humanity to steeper challenges.
Hey ho that’s one for another day.


I think this one came when someone invented the idea of climbing hills and trees.

I would vote for Iron/Steel age - it almost took 2000 years to go from the Bronze age to the Iron age. Although, Iron making “technology” was invented quite early on.

There’s no reason evolution and maybe even natural selection couldn’t have been discovered by the Greeks. They had comparative anatomy, fossils, and could have connected it with artificial selection like Darwin did. It’s a simple theory that even a child can understand without dumbing it down too much. Compare it to say, Maxwell’s equations, which were formulated around the same time.

Anaximander was one of the first known Greek philosophers but he was closer to the origin of animals and humans than anyone else for many hundreds of years. He thought all life came from the ocean and humans were incubated by fish before they could survive on land. Fanciful, but closer than “god did it.”

Lamarck is remembered for being obviously wrong about the mechanism, but at least he was in the ballpark – species change over time to adapt to their environment, etc. He was fighting an uphill battle against essentialists and people who thought humans weren’t even animals. I imagine Linnaeus could have figured it out too, if he wasn’t so practical minded. There were earlier evolutionary thinkers too, but they hardly made a dent. Ibn Khaldun seemed to think humans may have come from monkeys, but it wasn’t a focus of his work.

In the history of humans wearing clothes and having small things to take along, such as money, handkerchiefs or whatever, it amazes me that the development of pockets as an integral part of a garment didn’t happen until the late 1700s.

Perhaps it’s not a technological achievement on the same level as optics or electricity, but important nonetheless.

Beat me to it.

To elaborate: The process we know as the “Scientific Method” was slow to develop and become well-established as a way to advance knowledge.

According to research I did for a college class report once, there was an intellectual Dark Ages in Europe along with the economic Dark Ages of which Keynes spoke. An attitude had taken root regarding the acquisition of knowledge (epistemology), holding that all known and knowable knowledge had already been discovered (somehow) and was known by the “ancients” (meaning the likes of Periclean Greece, e.g.).

Western thinkers and intellectuals, therefore, in their quest for knowledge, became obsessed: Not with original discovery, but with discovering whatever wisdom they could find in the writings left behind by the ancients. They feverishly searched for whatever preserved manuscripts they could find, often finding them in dusty attics of monasteries and such places. The concept that they could learn, or re-learn, anything other than this way was largely lost.

Furthermore, writing new textbooks based on old manuscripts, there was distortion introduced with each new edition. Just like playing “telephone” with all the world’s knowledge. I saw sample excerpts from some anatomy texts that were grossly absurd. (It was commonly thought, for example, that the esophagus connected the back of the mouth directly to the heart, and was shown thus in some illustrations.)

The idea was missing that you might actually dissect a cadaver and, y’know, take a look for yourself. The religious orthodoxy of the day didn’t help, as chopping up bodies was frowned upon. Even dead bodies, as far as I could tell. And if you happened to take a look through one of those new-fangled telescopes and discover that the earth went around the sun, that was also frowned upon.

SDMB Dopers, well-educated lot that we are, are aware that Eastern philosophy was doing better in those days. Also, Arabic and early Islamic culture were more “enlightened”, preserving much of ancient knowledge in their Arabic translations, and doing original research like Al-Khowarizmi’s discoveries in algebra.

Eventually, the concept of discovery was itself re-discovered in Europe (in large part because of increaing contacts with Oriental cultures, I feel sure), and wealthy patrons began to sponsor such endeavors, and the Renaissance began.

Yes. Frankly, I doubt whether it could be done even even now. It would require extreme precision machining to get that many gear wheels to all work together without jamming up.