Inventions ahead of their time

One of the most expensive films ever made remains the 1963 epic Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Much of its $44 million bill went on ensuring historical accuracy – even down to the sandals and swords. Yet in one of the most famous scenes, the royal lovers dine in a sumptuous villa – with a clock ticking away on the table beside them.

Some critics pounced on this historical error and used it to declare the film flawed. In fact the ticking clock was perfectly correct. Spring wound clocks did exist in the first century AD. Indeed, director Joseph Mankiewiezc could legitimately have installed in Marc Anthony’s villa plenty of other machines – including steam engines, coin-in-the-slot vending machines, automatic doors, electric batteries, and even a mechanical astronomical computer.

The incident of Marc Anthony’s clock represents something more than a historical curiosity. There is, what I’m tempted to call a chronic tendency to underestimate the antiquity of mankind and of human achievements. This tendency – let’s call it the cult of the recent, or recentism – sees all worthwhile human achievements as being from modern times or from the recent past.

And there is a tendency that underestimates the heights to which our ancestors were able to rise with relatively primitive social infrastructures, little or no industry and scant technology, purely through the exercise of their skill and ingenuity.

In fact, when you begin to trawl through history looking for innovation and originality, it soon becomes clear just how much we owe to the inventive powers of our ancestors. Take these cases for example:-

Which was the first New Town to be laid out in Britain using a rational grid pattern of streets? Welwyn? Hampstead? Surprisingly it was Winchelsea in 1130s. The town was decreed to be built by Edward I as the main port to receive French imports and became the chief of the Cinque Ports. In a single year, 1180, the wine cellars of Winchelsea housed some 8 million litres of French wine – a level of wine imports not reached again until the 1960s. And Winchelsea was far from the first new town in England – they date from the 800s.

First use of reinforced concrete? World War I perhaps? Medieval cathedrals? Reinforced concrete was used by the Romans to build The Colosseum in the first century AD.

Mass production in factories is usually associated with the industrial revolution of the 1750s. Yet there are many examples from previous centuries. William Shakespeare’s father ran a glove factory in Stratford in the 1570s, where William was compelled to work as a teenager on his days off from school. It’s strange to think of Britain’s greatest playwright sweeping up in a factory as a lad!

When was the first electronic synthesiser built? Perhaps the famous Moog of the 1960s? Try Elisha Gray in 1876 who was trying to develop the telephone and discovered electronic music. Or even more astounding, Thaddeus Cahill, who developed the Telharmonium in 1897. His instrument weighed 200 tons, was the size of a telephone exchange, and occupied several rooms.

Gambling with cards has been popular for centuries in Britain. Because the crown imposed a tax on the sale of cards and because their printing was regulated by the Company of Stationers we know exactly how many packs were printed and sold each year. Incredibly. In 1665, the plague year, more than 63 million packs were printed and sold to English gamblers.

When did the oldest factory in Britain begin production? The Whitechapel Bell Foundry opened for business in 1570. Over the past 500 plus years it has cast bells that include Big Ben and the Liberty Bell. It is still in business today.

The first computer? Charles Babbage was a relative newcomer with his Difference Engine in 1822. Babbage was anticipated some 2,000 years earlier, probably by Archimedes of Syracuse who is the most likely designer of the Antikythera mechanism, recovered from the sea bed in 1901 but only recently recognised as a fully functioning astronomical computer.

What about James Watt and his steam engine? Didn’t he kick off the industrial revolution with steam power? We have all the archives of the firm of Boulton and Watt, founded in 1749, and we know precisely where and when each of the first 150 steam engines were installed – making the two men millionaires in just ten years. Surprisingly, not one of those first engines was used to power a mill or mine. They were sold to mill owners as back-up systems in case the millstream should run dry in a specially hot summer. So the great increase in industrial output achieved in the second half of the eighteenth century was based largely on wind and water power, not on steam.

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