In the last two centuries, new cultural discoveries have almost rewritten history. It has been an exciting time, full of adventures and surprises. Around every corner there are new answers to questions we had already imagined answered. And of these breakthroughs, no one shines as brightly as the impact of ancient Chinese inventions on modern life. As we explore ten of the greatest inventions and innovations in ancient China, you may be surprised at their impact on newer technology.
1. Paper. As we know it, paper was invented in China around the year 105. After seeing previous experiments from silk, bamboo sticks and animal skins, Cai Lun came up with his own idea. After mixing mulberry bark, rags, wheat stalks and other, a lot formed. This mass was pressed into layers and dried, which became a crude form of paper. Paper was such an important invention that the process of making it was a zealously protected secret. The secret was safe until the seventh century, when the art spread to India.
2. The printing press. Before Johann Gutenberg “invented” the printing press in the 1440s, China created a type of printing press between 206 BC. and A.D. 45. It was made using stone tablets to create a “rub” of famous Buddhist and Confucian texts. Next came the block print in the Sui dynasty. In block print, pictures and words were engraved on wooden boards, smeared with ink and pressed onto sheets of paper. Later, moving printing presses were introduced. According to the authors of Ancient Inventions, “By A.D. 1000, pages of modern-style books had replaced scrolls – well over 450 years prior to Gutenberg.”
3. The first book. Due to the early emergence of the printing press, China also claims the first book. In 868, almost six hundred years before the Gutenberg Bible, the earliest known book was printed. By the end of the Tang Dynasty, China had bookstores in almost every city.
4. Paper money. While you’d rather carry a lot of cash today instead of coin, that hasn’t always been the case. The idea of paper currency was first tried under Emperor Han Wu-Ti (140-87 BC) after the war drained the treasury. I have issued my own banknotes, worth and in return for 400,000 copper coins. Instead of paper, the emperor used the skin of the white deer. But the creature was so rare that the idea soon lost its appeal. In the early 800s, the idea of deterring highway robbers resurfaced. In 812 the government printed money again. By the year 1023, money had an expiry date and was already plagued by inflation and forgery. Almost six hundred years later, paper money set west, first printed in Sweden in 1601.
5. Abacus. Long before Texas Instruments was the first calculator in the works. The abacus dates from around 200 years B.C. It is a very advanced tool with a simple design. Wood is designed into a rectangular frame with rods running from bottom to top. About 2/3 from the base crosses a dividing line frame, known as the counting bar. On each of the bars are pearls. All beads above the counting bar are five. They under the same. The rows of rods are read from right to left. The longest bar on the right holds one’s seat, the next holds ten’s, then a hundred and so on. While the design may sound complex, some Chinese today are so skilled that they can solve difficult math problems faster than anyone using a calculator!
6. The decimal system. In the West, the decimal system occurred recently. The first believed example was in a Spanish manuscript dated around 976. But the first real example goes back much further. In China, an inscription dates from the 13th century BC. “547 days” written as “five hundred plus four decades plus seven days.” The Chinese probably created the decimal system because their language relied on characters (like pictures) instead of an alphabet. Each number had its own unique character. Without the decimal system, the Chinese would have had a terrible time remembering all these new characters. By using devices on devices, tens, hundreds, etc., the Chinese saved time and trouble.
7. The mechanical watch. In 732, a Buddhist monk and mathematician invented the first mechanical watch. I’ve named it “Water-powered spherical bird’s-eye view of the sky.” Like previous watches, water gave it power, but machines contained the movement. But after a few years, corrosion and freezing temperature took their toll. Only in 1090, when astronomer Su Sung designed his mechanical marvel “Cosmic Engine”, a more reliable watch was made. Created for Emperor Ying Zong, this watch had a tower over 30 feet high. It included machines that made wooden dolls jump from one of five doors at regular intervals throughout the day. (Much like the modern idea of a cuckoo clock.) The whole machine was powered by a giant water wheel. This watch ran until 1126, when it was dismantled by the conquering tombs and moved to Beijing for several years. The first clock reference in Western history was in 1335 at the Church of St. Gothard in Milan.
8. Planetarium. A planetarium is a large enclosed space that shows stars and constellations on the inside. Orbitoscope was the name of the first projection planetarium. It was built in Basil in 1912 by Professor E. Hinderman. But once again, China is the mother of this invention. The first planetarium is attributed to the design of an early emperor. As one source says, an astronomer named Jamaluddin created a planetarium during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) along with a perpetual calendar and other important astronomical devices.
9. Earthquake sensor. The earliest earthquake sensor was also an interesting piece of art. It was a bronze cylinder about 8 feet around, with 8 dragons lying over 8 open mouth frogs. A bronze ball rested in the mouth of each dragon. When an earthquake struck, a pendulum inside the cylinder would swing. It knocked the ball from the dragon’s mouth down into the frog’s mouth. The frog’s back then faced the direction of the center of the earthquake. Chang Heng invented it in A.D. 132 (during the Han Dynasty), almost 600 years before the first Western sensor was made in France. Later, in 1939, Imamura Akitsune recreated the invention and actually proved to be effective.
10. Helicopter rotor and propeller. While the ancient Chinese did not actually invent the helicopter, they were involved in creation. In the 4th century A.D. they invented a toy called “Bamboo Dragonfly”. You’ve probably seen them as prizes at local fairs or carnivals. It was a toy stop, with a base like a pencil and a small helicopter-like blade at the end. The top was packed with a cord. When you pulled the cord, the blade would rotate and float in the air. This toy was studied by Sir George Cayley in 1809 and played a role in the birth of modern aviation. It was not until the early 1900s that the first helicopter took flight.
It is sometimes a thought-provoking thing to realize that what seemed to be modern ideas or inventions are much older than we imagined. And it is likely that there are several inventions to be discovered. More historical changes need to be made. In concluding the Greatest Second Inventions of the last 2,000 years, Jared Diamond summed it up well while referring to the changing view of history and its inventors, “Then forget the stories of ingenious inventors who discovered a need for society, solved the single-handed and thereby transformed the world.There has never been such a genius …….. If Gutenberg had not found the better alloys and inks used in early printing, some other modern thinkers would metals and oils have done so …… gives Gutenberg some of the credit — but not too much. “
1. Select one of the inventions mentioned. Explain how different the world would be if it wasn’t invented.
2. Why do you think there was such a big time between the eastern and western dates of the invention?
3. What are two other inventions that came from ancient China? Investigate and find out when the idea was introduced to Western culture.