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Classical Asian Inventions

1,000 B.C. - 500 A.D.


Asian inventions of the classical era, 1000 B.C. to 500 A.D., include a few luxury items such as mirrors and ice cream. However, most of the notable creations are more practical in bent - things like crossbows, paper, the wheelbarrow, and horse tack. Of course, others were strictly ornamental, such as the Pekingese dog of imperial China.

c. 550 BCE | Invention of the collapsible umbrella, China

Fancy collapsible umbrellas were invented at least 2,500 years ago in China.
Julia T. on Flickr.com
The earliest known evidence of collapsible umbrellas comes from the Luoyang site in China, and is dated to about 550 BCE. Archaeologists have found Zhou Dynasty era casts of bronze socketed hinges with locking slides, which probably were used in umbrellas and parasols.

c. 500 BCE | Invention of the handheld crossbow, China

Leonardo DaVinci's drawing of a handheld crossbow, invented around 500 B.C. in China
Public domain via Wikipedia
The crossbow makes its appearance in the historical record in Sun Tzu's famous book, "The Art of War," which was written sometime in sixth century B.C. It may have actually been invented some 500 years earlier. By the time of the early Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), Chinese engineers had created a repeating crossbow, which could fire as many as 10 bolts in 15 seconds.

c. 400 BCE | Invention of the mirror, Syria / Lebanon

Mirrors were invented in Lebanon about 2,400 years ago.
Izzard on Flickr.com
Humans have probably used still water as a mirror since self-awareness began in the mists of prehistory. Later, shined pieces of obsidian or plates of metal became popular reflectors. However, the first modern mirrors, made of glass backed with metal leaf, were invented in Lebanon around 400 BCE. Since the Lebanese invented glass, it seems fitting that they also created the first mirrors. According to Roman historian Pliny, the first mirrors were manufactured at Sidon, and consisted of a sheet of glass backed by lead, and later gold, silver, or copper leaf.

c. 400 BCE | Invention of ice cream, Persia

Desserts resembling ice cream were invented 2,400 years ago in Persia.
jessicafm on Flickr.com
The earliest ice creams were not much like our modern-day summer treat. Around 400 BCE, some brilliant but anonymous Persian decided to mix snow from the mountains with some honey and fruit, for a sweet and cooling treat. Thus, ice... honey was born. The "cream" probably did not enter in to ice cream until the 1600s, in Europe.

c. 105 CE - Invention of paper by Tsai Lun (?), China

The papermaking process was invented in China at least 2,100 years ago.
China Photos / Getty Images
In 105 CE, a court eunuch named Tsai Lun reported the invention of papermaking to Emperor Wu Di of the Han Dynasty. As a result, Tsai Lun is often credited with the actual invention of paper, although it seems likely that the technique was discovered hundreds of years earlier. The first Chinese paper was made from hemp and other plant fibers, soaked and then spread over a screen to dry. From China, this technology spread to Korea, Japan, Tibet, Central Asia, and then into the Middle East and eventually Europe.

118 CE | Invention of the wheelbarrow, China

The wheelbarrow was originally created as a military technology.
Glenn Mitsui / Getty Images
It seems surprising, now that every gardener has one out in the toolshed, but the wheelbarrow started out as top-secret military equipment. The original Chinese design had a single (rather unstable) wheel right in the center of the barrow. The Chinese army used them to transport heavy loads of ammunition, food, and other military materials. Since then, the placement of the wheel has been moved forward a bit, and the wheelbarrow is often stabilized by the addition of "feet" so that the user can set it down upright. Fundamentally, though, this secret weapon of the Han Chinese army has rolled through history pretty much unaltered!

132 CE | Invention of the seismoscope by Zhang Heng, China

The earliest earthquake detector or seismoscope was created in China about 2,100 years ago.
museumdetoulouse on Flickr.com
China has always been prone to earthquakes. We still can't predict earthquakes with any accuracy, but in 132 CE, the Chinese inventor Zhang Heng made the first advance in detecting and measuring earthquakes as they happen. His invention, the seismoscope, notified the emperor's court that an earthquake had taken place, and indicated the direction of the epicenter. This would allow court messengers to set out in that direction to assess damage, rather than having to wait for reports to come in from survivors in the earthquake zone.

190 CE | Invention of the abacus, China

Skilled abacus users can compute sums faster than any calculator.
Andy Sotiriou / Getty Images
The abacus, a calculating device made up of rows of beads, was probably invented prior to 190 CE. However, that is the date of a book by Xu Yue, the Chinese official who first documented the use of this calculation machine. Since the abacus is cheap, does not require batteries or an electric plug, and is highly portable, many merchants in developing countries still use them today. In addition, experienced abacus users are faster at addition and subtraction than pocket-calculator users! (The abacus fares less well at finding cosines or calculating compound interest, however.)

c. 200 CE | Invention of the saddle and stirrups, Central Asia and China

The saddle and stirrups were invented in Central Asia and China about 2,100 years ago.
Sam Ose on Flickr.com
Horses were domesticated as far back as 4,000 BCE, probably in Central Asia. However, for thousands of years riders rode bareback, and used only a rope harness and bit to direct the animals. Around 200 CE, the consummate horsemen (and women) of Central Asia developed the leather saddle. The Chinese, meanwhile, created a metal stirrup for ease of mounting and dismounting from a steed. When combined, these two inventions allowed Central Asian and other riders to shoot arrows and drive lances from horseback, significantly impacting both hunting techniques and warfare.

c. 500 CE | Creation of modern number system, India and Arabia

Our modern number system was created in India and Arabia more than 2,000 years ago.
Photodisc / Getty Images
The numbering system used today in the western world was first developed around 500 CE by the Indian mathematician and astronomer, Aryabhata I. His system was improved upon around 600 by Arab mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, who introduced the "positional zero" - that is, zeros used to indicate multiples of 10. This system soon replaced the cumbersome Latin system of Roman numerals for most applications. Once scholars could easily distinguish between 1, 100, and 10,000, modern math and science advanced by leaps and bounds.
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