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These 5 Modern Inventions Actually Have Ancient Roots

Thought central heating or plumbing was only thought of recently? Actually, these modern inventions date back thousands of years ago.

By Sean Mowbray
Sep 13, 2022 1:00 PM
Modern central heating
(Credit: grandbrothers/Shutterstock)


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It may be tempting to believe that our modernized and globalized world holds the key to technological advancement. We’re continuing to see strides in artificial intelligence and technology that will put us well into the future.

But many of the modern wonders we see today, we also take for granted. And common inventions that we use daily actually have a historical founding in ancient times, stretching back thousands of years ago. Here are five of those inventions that we can say thank you to ancient inventors.

1. Central Heating

(Credit: JossK/Shutterstock)

You may not even think about it, but we seek comfort in central heating. Those in ancient history thought the same and wanted to feel warmth beneath their feet in a temple. At least that’s what the ancient Greeks wanted. One of the first systems of central heating – called a hypocaust – is known from the Temple at Ephesus, constructed around 350 B.C.

Historians credit Sergius Orata for improving the Greek’s early tech. Orata utilized a system of pillars and stacked tiles beneath buildings to direct heat from a furnace between the ground, floor and walls of Roman public buildings and baths. Given the cost and upkeep of such a system – they had to continually restock the furnace – only the wealthiest could afford such structures in their homes.

Read more: 5 Inventions That Had Surprising (And Disturbing) Origins

2. Concrete

(Credit: P.KASIPAT/Shutterstock)

Today, concrete is all around us, so much so that the world is running out of the sand. While modern concrete dates to the 19th century, the first use of similar materials goes back thousands of years. Historians have traced the first concrete-like construction work to between 12,000 and 8,000 years ago.

But the Romans, however, turned up the concrete ante. Perhaps better known for their artful use of marble from the third century B.C., the Romans used concrete in many of the structures we wonder at today. Volcanic ash was a key element of Roman concrete, making it considerably weaker than our modern material, but incredibly durable. The Colosseum’s ability to weather the ages is perhaps the most striking example.

3. Vending Machines

(Credit: Ground Picture/Shutterstock)

Today, vending machines are the savior of many time-pressed and hungry travelers. But back in ancient times, the first construction was intended as a gateway to salvation. Heron of Alexandra created the first vending machine as a ‘pay-to-pray’ system and distributed them in temples around Egypt.

People deposited coins in a slot that pressed on a metal valve, and released holy water. Perhaps less inspiring, but arguably more nourishing than a bar of chocolate or packet of crisps, this invention would return centuries later in its modern form, dispensing treats to the masses.

4. Automatic Doors

(Credit: HelloRF Zcool/Shutterstock)

Heron of Alexandria continued after his holy water dispenser and also designed a set of automatic doors. Utilizing a fire altar, water pumps and pulleys, he devised a way for the faithful to enter a temple in his home city without the need for anyone to pull open the heavy doors. It is uncertain, however, whether this “magical” temple entrance ever made it from the mind of the inventor to an actual temple.

5. Plumbing

(Credit: Cortyn/Shutterstock)

Even in the past, we’ve tried different ways to get rid of our waste. Early waste disposal involved planning on a grander scale, something which the Harappan civilization of the Indus valley achieved in the city of Mohenjo-Daro, built around 2500 B.C.

“Fresh water was supplied by a network of wells,” writes one historian. “The waste water and other sewage of almost every house was channelled into the drain running along the street outside.” Historians consider this city’s sanitation as one of the finest. Around the same time, the ancient Egyptians began using copper pipes in temples to drain away excess water.

Later still, the Roman’s contributed to this history of plumbing and constructed the Cloaca Maxima, a testament to their adeptness at engineering. Built around the sixth century B.C., the Romans later connected it to public baths and toilets around the city, but its principal function was to remove stormwater from the streets. It would take hundreds of years before inventors would devise the modern sewer systems we know today.

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