During the evolution of ancient civilizations, technological progress emerged as a consequence of advancements in engineering during ancient times. These technological breakthroughs played a crucial role in influencing societies to adopt novel ways of living and governance. This article delves into the technological advancements and the evolution of various engineering sciences in historical times leading up to the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages commenced after significant events such as the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476, the demise of Justinian I in the 6th century, the rise of Islam in the 7th century, or the ascendance of Charlemagne in the 8th century.
The history of technology in Africa spans back to the early stages of human existence, with evidence of tool use by hominid ancestors in the regions where humans are believed to have evolved. Africa witnessed the earliest development of ironworking technology in the Aïr Mountains region (modern-day Niger) and the construction of some of the world’s oldest monuments, pyramids, and towers in Egypt, Nubia, and North Africa. Notably, Nubia and ancient Kush displayed advancements in glazed quartzite and brick building techniques surpassing those in Egypt.
Mesopotamia entered the Bronze Age early on, utilizing copper, bronze, gold, and later iron. Palaces were adorned with substantial amounts of these valuable metals, which were also employed for armor and various weapons, including swords, daggers, spears, and maces. The Sumerians, part of Mesopotamian civilization, achieved a significant milestone with the invention of writing. This marked the beginning of recorded laws, such as the Code of Hammurabi, and notable literary works like the Epic of Gilgamesh Mesopotamia.
Mesopotamia is credited with several inventions, including the wheel, which first appeared as the potter’s wheel during the 5th millennium BC, leading to the creation of wheeled vehicles in the early 4th millennium BC. The lever was utilized in the shadoof water-lifting device, considered the first crane machine, around 3000 BC in Mesopotamia and later in ancient Egyptian technology circa 2000 BC. The earliest evidence of pulleys dates back to Mesopotamia in the early 2nd millennium BC.
Egyptians were pioneers in the use of simple machines, such as ramps for construction purposes. They engaged in large-scale gold mining using fire-setting and created the first recognizable map, the Turin papyrus, which outlined a mine plan in Nubia.
Renowned for constructing pyramids with rudimentary tools, the Egyptians utilized three of the Six Simple Machines—namely, the inclined plane, the wedge, and the lever. These machines enabled them to move massive limestone blocks, each weighing around 3.5 tons (7,000 lbs.), to build structures like the Great Pyramid of Giza, standing at 481 feet (147 meters) in height.
The history of science and technology in the Indian subcontinent traces back to the earliest civilizations. The Indus Valley civilization, located in present-day Pakistan and northwestern India, displayed advancements in city planning, sanitation technologies, and plumbing. Notable features included closed gutters, public baths, and communal granaries in these ancient cities.Indian Subcontinent The inhabitants of the Indus Valley civilization engaged in various scientific and technological practices, encompassing mathematics, hydrography, metrology, metallurgy, astronomy, medicine, surgery, civil engineering, and sewage collection and disposal.
The historical trajectory of science and technology in China showcases noteworthy progress in fields such as science, technology, mathematics, and astronomy. China holds the earliest recorded observations of celestial phenomena, including comets, solar eclipses, and supernovae. Traditional practices like Chinese medicine, acupuncture, and herbal medicine flourished. China’s Four Great Inventions—compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and printing—emerged as pivotal technological breakthroughs, some of which were introduced to Europe only by the end of the Middle Ages.
Iran witnessed the origin of the Qanat, an ingenious water management system employed for irrigation, predating the Achaemenid period of Persia. The oldest and most extensive qanat, located in Gonabad, Iran, continues to supply drinking and agricultural water after 2,700 years, benefiting nearly 40,000 people.
The earliest instances of water wheels and watermills trace back to the ancient Near East in the 4th century BC, specifically within the Persian Empire before 350 BC, covering regions like Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Persia (Iran). This pioneering use of water power marked the initial application of a non-muscular human-devised motive force, aside from sail technology.
Mesoamerica and Andean Region
In the ancient civilizations of the Americas, lacking suitable draft animals and grappling with challenging terrains unsuitable for wheeled transport, the focus shifted to advanced engineering. Innovations included above-ground and underground aqueducts, earthquake-resistant masonry, artificial lakes, dykes, fountains, pressurized water systems, roadways, and intricate terracing. Metallurgy, starting with gold-working in Peru around 2000 BC, expanded to include copper, tin, lead, and bronze. Although metallurgical advancements in Mesoamerica occurred later, in the Middle Ages, they utilized sophisticated alloys and gilding techniques.
The Hellenistic period, initiated by Alexander’s conquests in the 4th century BC, fostered a civilization blending Greek and Near-Eastern cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean region. With Ptolemaic Egypt as its intellectual hub and Greek as the common language, the Hellenistic civilization engaged scholars and engineers from diverse backgrounds, contributing to advancements in various fields.
Roman technology played a pivotal role in sustaining Roman civilization and facilitating the extensive expansion of Roman commerce and military endeavors over nearly a millennium. Romans excelled in civil engineering, construction materials, transport technology, and inventions such as the mechanical reaper, with some technological feats unmatched until the 19th century. Their sophisticated agriculture, ironworking, stonemasonry, road-building, military and civil engineering, spinning and weaving, and water management, including aqueducts and water mills, demonstrated a comprehensive and advanced technological landscape. Romans were pioneers in hydraulic mining methods, applying hushing techniques for prospecting and ore extraction. Their contributions in various sectors laid the groundwork for technological progress in subsequent centuries.