Rome’s Lost City
Ancient Baiae was a luxurious-some said decadent-resort for wealthy Romans who came to soak in its warm mineral springs. Its coast was lined with enormous palaces and villas, sumptuous gardens, casinos, swimming pools and three massive domed bathhouses. One of those baths, the Temple of Mercury in Baiae, is the oldest unsupported concrete dome in Italy. It was built toward the end of the first century B.C. You can still go into it today-in fact, many people call it the “Temple of Echo” because of its extraordinary acoustics.
The First Railway
The Greeks built the world’s first railway, known as the Diolkos, across the Isthmus of Corinth during the sixth century B.C. The Diolkos (the word means “haul-over”) carried marble, timber and other goods between western Greece and the Aegean Sea, sparing ships the hazardous journey around the Peloponnesian peninsula.
The Egyptians didn’t invent the horse-drawn chariot-most historians think that the Mesopotamians were the first to build the two-wheeled carts, and it was the conquering Hyksos who brought them to Egypt around 1600 B.C. – but they were the first to make the vehicles into efficient war machines. Egyptian chariots were lighter, faster, stronger and more flexible than their predecessors, and they helped make the Egyptians into one of the most formidable armies in the ancient world.
The Pharos Lighthouse
In about 290 B.C., the people of Alexandria, Egypt built a massive lighthouse, called the Pharos, on a tiny island at the mouth of their harbor. Archaeologists and historians think that the tower was more than 300 feet tall-taller than any other building in the ancient world except the Great Pyramid at Giza. A dumbwaiter inside the tower brought fuel to an enormous torch at the top; there, a giant curved mirror reflected the firelight into the distance. People said that sailors could see the light (and, during the day, the smoke from the fire) from 100 miles away.
Around 245 B.C., the Greek inventor Ctesibius built the first continuously working clock. It was an improvement on the clepsydra, a timer that leaked a specific quantity of water out of a jar or tube. When the container was empty, the time was up. This was a good way to tell the end of a given period of time, but it didn’t help people to know what time of day it was. Ctesibius’s clepsydra solved this problem: it had a jar that never emptied, so it dripped at a constant rate into another container. There, the water raised a float attached to a pointer that told the hour. This version of the clepsydra kept more accurate time than any other kind of clock until the 14th century, when inventors began to experiment with mechanical, rather than hydraulic, timepieces.
According to some archaeologists and historians, Homer’s Trojan horse never actually existed. They say the Greek army got through the walls of Troy the old-fashioned way: using a battering ram. Siege armies often used these machines to smash through doors or castle walls: soldiers would build a covered shed or wheels with a heavy hanging beam inside, wheel the shed over to its target, and swing the beam slowly back and forth, knocking down whatever was in its way. The weapon didn’t look much like a workhorse-in fact, it resembled a turtle peeking out of its shell-but it definitely got the job done!
When the architect Ictinus and the sculptor Phidias designed the Parthenon in the middle of the 5th century BC, they used a few optical illusions-visual magic tricks-to make the lines of the temple appear perfectly, majestically straight. Each of the building’s columns has a slight bulge in the middle, known as an entasis, and each one is wider at the bottom than at the top. This makes the columns look straight, even and graceful. Likewise, the marble floor is thicker in the center than at the building’s edges and its long steps are bowed, so that from a distance the temple’s front seems to be a perfectly horizontal line.
Other ancient builders used similar tricks. For example, the Library of Celsus in Ephesus was squeezed onto a narrow lot, but the building looks much wider than it is because its center columns are taller than those on the outside. And although the four minarets on the plinth of the Taj Mahal look perfectly vertical from a distance, they actually tilt slightly away from the building. There’s an optical illusion on the inside of the tomb, too: its walls are decorated with elaborate calligraphy that grows larger as it inches upward, so the letters look the same size from every angle.
The Chinese crossbow was one of the earliest mass-produced missile weapons. Unlike a regular bow, a crossbow is mounted horizontally to a stock and has a mechanical trigger, so a soldier can fire over and over again without getting tired. Some historians think that the Chinese invented the first crude crossbows as early as 2000 BC; by the 5th century BC, bronze-making technology had advanced so much that artisans could make portable, accurate crossbows for entire armies. Some of these even had magazines full of projectiles, or bolts, so they could reload automatically, which made it possible for soldiers to keep on firing for minutes on end.
Some people might say that the most important Chinese invention is one that we use every day: paper. The imperial official Ts’ai Lun gets the credit: in about 405 AD, he told the emperor that he’d made a sheet of paper out of mulberry fibers, old fishnets and rags and hemp waste. (Today, historians think that the Chinese had actually made the first paper about 200 years before, but Ts’ai Lun’s announcement brought the invention great publicity.) Paper makers all over China adapted Ts’ai Lun’s recipe, and some figured out how to produce many sheets all at once.
Word of Ts’ai Lun’s invention spread to Korea and Japan, where officials made paper from a pulpy mixture of hemp, rattan, mulberry, bamboo, rice straw and seaweed. Meanwhile, captured Chinese artisans taught papermaking to Arabs in Samarkand, and by the 10th century AD the craft had spread to Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and Morocco.
In 875 AD, a thousand years before the Wright Brothers took their first flight, a 70-year-old engineer named Abbas ibn Firnas built a flying machine out of silk, feathers and wood. He tied his contraption to his arms, climbed a tower near Cordoba, Spain, and jumped into the air. He stayed aloft for nearly 10 minutes. He crashed when he landed-his flying machine didn’t have a tail to slow him down as he approached the ground-but he survived. Today, ibn Firnas’ picture is on a postage stamp in Libya, and the Baghdad airport bears his name.
After the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, the celebrated Persian navy lay in shambles, and it was all because of one Greek weapon: the trireme. Triremes were speedy, maneuverable military ships, about 120 feet long, and they were powered by 170 rowers sitting on three decks, one above the other. These rowers rowed using a sliding stroke-similar to the one that crew racers use today-that got its power from the strength of their legs, and they pulled the boat through the water at about eight knots. No one has ever found a wrecked trireme, so we rely on pictures and stories to tell what the boats looked like. In fact, there’s a picture of an ancient trireme on the Greek one-cent Euro coin.
In the middle of the 9th century AD, Chinese scientists who were trying to concoct an immortality potion stumbled instead across an incendiary combination of sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter: gunpowder. They used it to build more powerful projectile weapons, like crude cannons, flamethrowers and explosive anti-personnel mines. They even used it to make rockets! The invention of gunpowder completely changed the way that people fought wars, and made most older weapons obsolete.
In the 12th century, French armies began to batter away at enemy fortifications using a new kind of weapon: the trebuchet. Like a catapult, a trebuchet hurled a heavy projectile toward a target. However, like a seesaw, a trebuchet was a counterpoise engine: a weight at the end of one arm powered the machine’s throwing action. The largest ones could throw 300-pound rocks 300 yards, doing serious damage to whatever was in their way. Many historians think that the trebuchet was so powerful and so destructive that it made medieval castles and stone fortifications obsolete.
In the spring of 1999, a crew of deep-sea explorers looking for a missing Israeli submarine in the Mediterranean Sea stumbled upon something much more interesting: a wrecked trading ship, nearly 2,300 years old, sitting at the bottom of the sea between the ancient cities of Rhodes and Alexandria. The shipwreck was almost two miles under the water’s surface-the deepest ancient wreck that archaeologists had ever found, and proof that Hellenistic traders had built ships that could crisscross the sea. The ship’s cargo was nearly 3,000 amphorae, or 2-foot-long clay carrying-jugs, of inexpensive wine from Kos (a tiny island near Rhodes). The hull also held pitchers, anchors, serving bowls and a cooking pot. The wreck remains a promising archaeological site: From the ancient ship, scholars hope to learn a great deal about Mediterranean goods, trade routes and nautical technologies.
About 50 years ago, a man named Albert Anderson and his son were looking for Native American artifacts on Staten Island when they spotted a stone Clovis point in the shallow water along the shore of Port Mobil. A Clovis point is a Paleoindian spear point used for hunting enormous animals like mammoths and mastodons. It’s about five inches long and fluted along the sides. Archaeologists have used radiocarbon dating to determine that similar Clovis points are about 11,000 years old.