Sometimes an idea is so brilliant that it instantly changes the world. Sometimes it takes a little longer. In fact, it can take thousands of years for a great concept to take hold.
So don’t be too disappointed if your brilliant idea doesn’t impress people right away. It will get there even if you are no longer there to see it. Here are 10 ideas that were way ahead of their time.
10 world famous ideas that started as dreams
10 Unbreakable glass
Glass is an excellent invention. Not only is it good for food and drink storage, but it can also be decorated as a luxury item. Around 3600 BC Discovered in Mesopotamia, glass was initially only found in the hands of the elite. Because of its fragility and the difficulty of making it, glass appeared to be destined to remain an expensive and rare material.
However, an invention could have changed this. According to Pliny the Elder, an inventor presented himself to the Roman emperor Tiberius with a strange discovery. The wise man had invented an unbreakable, flexible form of glass.
In another report, Tiberius received a new glass beaker that he judged to be pretty but nothing special. After Tiberius returned it to the inventor, the glassmaker threw the cup on the floor. To the astonishment of the emperor, it was not smashed, but only slightly dented. Surely the man was made for life?
In a way it was. But it wasn’t a long life.
Apparently, Tiberius was concerned that this discovery would destroy the value of silver and gold, so he had the inventor beheaded. While Pliny thought this story was unlikely, some researchers believe that the man may have invented an early form of the shatterproof borosilicate glass used today.
What if you take a piece of cake and cut it? You will receive two smaller pieces of cake. What if you slice it again? And again?
For most ancient thinkers, there was no end to the amount of cuts that could be made. No matter how much you sliced, there was always a smaller piece of cake – like a terribly disappointing birthday party. But for Democritus and Leukippus there was an “indescribable”, smallest piece of cake. The Greek for “not cuttable” is Atomsfrom which we get the word “atom”.
According to these philosophers, atoms come in different shapes. Mixing these different types of atoms creates all visible matter. Today we could call these mixtures molecules. Although it was first postulated in the fifth century BC, the existence of atoms was still questioned by some people in the late 19th century AD.
In ancient times there was even evidence of quantum theory. Atoms, according to Epicurus, moved in straight lines when not acted on them, but they occasionally “swayed” at random.
8th Vending machines
When we have a good idea in life, most of us are satisfied. But there are some lucky people who are just as awesome.
Heron of Alexandria was one of those people whose every idle thought seems to have been an inspiration. He lived in the first century AD and invented many things that were not seen for nearly 2,000 years.
One of his first ideas brought science and religion together in a very pleasant way. Holy water has long been a feature of religious worship. In ancient times you had to pay for this water. But even under the eyes of the gods, some people would steal more than they paid for. Heron was in the case, however.
He created the first automat. A worshiper put a coin in a slot and it moved a lever that opened a pipe. Then the water flowed out. As soon as the coin fell into the machine, the water stopped. Each worshiper got the water he paid for and the temple got all the money it was due.
7th Automatic doors
Seven of the books written by Heron of Alexandria still exist and they are full of amazing inventions. Some of his ideas should work wonderfully. Although we associate automatic doors with shops, Heron hoped to scare worshipers by creating automatic doors for a temple.
In Heron’s design, the doors of the temple did not open when someone approached. They only opened when a fire was lit on an altar. The heat from the fire warmed the air in the hollow altar, and the expanding air drove water into a bucket. The heavy bucket pulled on a rope and opened the doors.
Today we might be more impressed with automatic doors if a priest would light a fire and sing as we walked to the doors.
6 Steam power
Heron was not satisfied with religious tricks. One of his inventions could really have revolutionized the world. The 18th century industrial revolution in Europe could have happened hundreds of years earlier if Heron’s steam-powered inventions had begun.
Heron understood that water expands when it is converted to steam. He created an object called aeolipile from a hollow sphere and some tubes. By creating steam and pushing it out of the tubes, the hollow ball rotates quickly. Heron had invented the first steam engine.
Unfortunately, the aeolipil remained just a curiosity and was largely forgotten.
10 supposedly good ideas that failed
5 contact lenses
Glasses that were worn on the face to make it easier for people to see were first used in Italy in the 13th century. As anyone who wears glasses can tell in the age of face masks, wearing glasses on your nose has disadvantages. Wouldn’t it be a lot easier if you could just stick the lenses in your eyes?
In 1508, Leonardo da Vinci wrote a treatise describing how immersing your head in water changes the way you see things. It came with funnels with lentils and water that could be placed over the eyes. They weren’t practical.
Rene Descartes thought of a simpler version. Why not fill a glass tube with water and attach it directly to the eyeball? These lenses would have been the first to make direct contact with the eye. Unfortunately, they would have stopped you from blinking too.
To improve Descartes’ design, Thomas Young reduced the length of the glass tubes to allow the eyelids to close. But to hold them in place he had to use wax to glue them to the eye. . . Contact lenses were a good idea, but technology just wasn’t catching up.
4th Underfloor heating
Fires are romantic things. It’s nice to sit and see you on a winter night. But they are incredibly inefficient at heating a home.
Most of the heat goes up the chimney. Those who are near the fire can be burned on the parts near the fire and freeze on their backs. The Romans did not let this inefficiency persist – they invented a method for central heating of their houses.
When they built their mansions, they first created a cavity under the ground. These spaces were supported by tiles with large gaps between them.
These structures, known as hypocausts, let hot air pass through. A fire was launched into the hypocaust, and the hot air warmed the house from below. The air was also drawn in through ducts in the walls. This warmed the whole house, not just the parts near the fire.
When the Roman Empire collapsed, hypocausts went out of style and Europe became a much cooler place to live for hundreds of years.
3 Flush toilets
Toilets are always a good idea. Contact with human waste is one of the best ways to get a bad illness. It should therefore be obvious to divert the sewage away from where you live.
For most of human history, the best anyone could do was wander a little way from their home to use a toilet that was little more than a hole in the floor. Often the toilet in the house was just a pot that had to be emptied into the street.
1700 BC In the Minoan palace of Crete, toilets were created that used running water to drain sewage. This incredible palace was possibly the first place toilets were flushed.
Shared toilets with long benches and running water still existed for centuries, but we had to wait for the modern flush toilet to come into the apartment. And the invention of soft toilet paper.
In 1822 Charles Babbage presented a paper to the Royal Astronomical Society in London. Called a “note on the application of machines to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables,” it was nothing less than his idea for a mechanical computer.
At that time, long calculations were made easier by filling stout volumes of tables with mathematical results. To avoid mistakes in these important tables and to execute them faster than humans, Babbage invented a machine that could do repetitive calculations.
Babbag’s differential motor would have been a miracle. This hand-cranked device consists of 8,000 pieces cast in bronze and weighs five tons. It would have produced all the math results you could ever ask for. The answers to the calculations entered were even printed out.
Unfortunately, the differential motor was never completed. Despite the astronomical £ 17,000 given to him by the British government, Babbage was unable to build a working model.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that Babbag’s designs were actually made. Like the answers his machine provided, it turned out that Babbage had calculated correctly – his differential motor would have worked.
1 Computer (again)
Charles Babbage’s metal calculators weren’t the first of their kind, but it took researchers some time to figure this out. After corroded and encrusted lumps of metal were pulled from an old shipwreck off the Antikythera coast in 1900, historians were puzzled as to what they could be. These green fragments had to wait to be examined with X-rays to reveal their secrets.
The Antikythera Mechanism, as these fragments were called, consisted of at least 30 metal wheels housed in a wooden box. The device was made around 100 BC. Manufactured.
The interlocking wheels were marked with symbols that could be read by the user and used to calculate the positions of the sun, moon and planets. By turning the wheels you could get the mechanism that tells you what the sky would look like on a given night.
Some of the dials were marked with spheres representing the heavenly objects they were tracking – for example, a golden sun and a red Mars. The mechanism could even predict lunar and solar eclipses.
Nothing else like the Antikythera Mechanism was ever found. Ancient writers suggest objects that could model the night sky, but these objects seem to have completely disappeared from history. Maybe there are other ancient inventions lying on the seabed just waiting to surprise us.
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