5 Ancient Discoveries Still in Use Today

Learn about the modern links to our ancestors and the innovations which withstood the test of time

By Google Arts & Culture

With content from the Barbican, The Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar, and more

Planispheric Astrolabe Planispheric Astrolabe (9th century AD)The Khalili Collections

1. Astronomy

Humans have looked to the stars as long as we’ve existed. The development of astronomical theories, concurrently throughout many cultures, greatly contributed to timekeeping, navigation, and agriculture.

The astrolabe, invented in Hellenistic Greece, is a device primarily used to survey the skies, although it had many other purposes. This 9th-century CE astrolabe is a superb example of the type used throughout the Islamic Golden Age. 

Hubble Sees a Star ‘Inflating’ a Giant Bubble (2017-12-08)NASA

Modern astronomy has furthered our understanding of our own universe and where we came from.

This image of the Bubble Nebula, captured in 2017 by the Hubble Space Telescope, shows a cloud of dust and gas seven lightyears wide, surrounding a massive, hot, young star.

Gathering Honey, Tomb of Rekhmire (ca. 1479–1425 B.C.) by Nina de Garis DaviesThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

2. Beekeeping

The practice of collecting honey dates back to 9000 BCE, with evidence of domesticated beekeeping beginning to appear more than 4,000 years ago.

This painting of Egyptian beekeepers gathering honey, found in the Tomb of Rekhmire, was created around 1400 BCE. 

Hive frame with visible honey and wax construction in the Synthetic Apiary environment. Photo: The Mediated Matter Group (2016/2016) by The Mediated Matter GroupBarbican Centre

The basic techniques of beekeeping have changed very little since the domestication of the honeybee, and many beekeepers strive to keep traditional methods alive.

Today, man-made hives are common throughout apiaries, but many cultures still collect honey from wild bees. The species of bee and the type of pollen they collect influences the flavor of honey, so wild honey is sometimes the tastiest!

The Lodestone, the Magnet (Lapis Polaris, Magnes) (ca. 1590-1600) by Theodor Galle after StradanusDavison Art Center, Wesleyan University

3. Magnetism

The power of magnetism was harnessed in the 6th century BCE by Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus, who is credited with discovering lodestone’s attraction to iron.

Freely-turning lodestones, like the one in the foreground of this 1600 CE engraving, were the first compasses.

MRI ButterflyFlorida State University Museum of Fine Arts

The study of magnets and magnetic fields is inextricably linked with our understanding of physics.

Its development continues today, and the practical applications include speakers, motors, MRIs, computer hard drives, and innumerable other technologies.

Camera obscura (1646)Vilnius University Library

4. Optics

The behavior of light has captured our imaginations since the dawn of civilization. One of the earliest examples is the camera obscura, a dark room with a pinhole light source which projects an image onto the opposite wall.

The first confirmed description of a camera obscura appears in a Chinese manuscript dating back to the 4th century BCE, but there is some evidence that primitive versions were used even earlier. German polymath Athanasius Kircher illustrated this diagram in 1646 CE.

Microgravity (1999-05-26)NASA

The field of optics has been refined significantly in the centuries since, and its benefits are ingrained in our daily lives.

This sophisticated science has given us cameras, glasses, telescopes, lasers, and much more.  

Namban Screens (Left-hand screen) (1598 - 1615) by Kanô NaizenKobe City Museum

5. Wind Power

Humanity has always excelled at making use of available resources, and the kinetic power of wind has been utilized since at least the first time we took to the seas in a sailing vessel.

Mod-1 Wind Turbine at Boone, North Carolina (1979-06-01)NASA

Windmills have been used to pump water and grind grain since at least the 9th century. The technology has been scaled up in the meantime, with wind turbines producing more and more of the world’s electricity each year.

Learn more about human ingenuity by exploring The History of Technology in 5 Museums.

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