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Empire builders: greatest Inventions

A Chinese compass | Image: Shutterstock

The rise and fall of some of the world’s greatest empires is the focus of Empire Builders. This six-part series will explore the most significant monuments left behind by these great empires, whilst discovering how each empire has left a legacy that still affects today’s modern world.

Some of those legacies were innovations that changed the course of history. Here, we take a look at three great empires and discovery some of their most enduring inventions.

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The Ancient Egyptians

The dynasties of Ancient Egypt can be dated back as far as 3000 BC, with the Egyptian Empire reaching its peak during the period of the New Kingdom (c. 1150 – 1069 BC). This time is described as a golden age of the civilisation of Ancient Egypt. It was a period of wealth, prosperity and international prestige and included one of Egypt’s most famous pharaohs, Tutankhamun.

The dynastic period ended with the suicide of Cleopatra VII in 30 BC, famously said to have been bitten by an asp, a venomous Egyptian cobra. After her death, Egypt was absorbed by the Roman Empire.

When it comes to inventions, the advanced civilisation of the Ancient Egyptians left behind a lasting legacy. From toothpaste to taxation, wigs to door locks, bowling to basin irrigation, the Egyptians were serial innovators. They were pioneers of the written language and in fact tipped the Romans to the creation of the first paved road some four and a half thousand years ago.

Perhaps their greatest creation was that of the calendar, something our modern world could not work without. Egyptians created a solar calendar to enable them to know when the annual flooding of the Nile would occur, an event which their entire agricultural system was dependent on.

The calendar was divided into three seasons – flood, emergence and harvest. Each season had four months and each month had 30 days, so 360 days in total. Five additional days were added as religious holidays to celebrate the birthdays of the gods giving a grand total of 365 days.

The Chinese Empire

Not only can the Chinese dynasties be traced back over four thousand years, but the Chinese Empire was arguably the longest running in history. Beginning in 221 BC with the first Qin dynasty, which also saw China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang, the imperial era would last until the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912.

The last emperor of China was Puyi who came to the throne at the tender age of two. His reign would last just three years before a revolution would force him to abdicate his throne.

However, four inventions from the time of the Chinese Empire changed the course of human history more than any others – the compass, paper, paper printing and gunpowder.

The Chinese dynasties contributed countless inventions to the world including paper money, the bristle toothbrush, the umbrella, silk production, porcelain and even the first earthquake detector in 132 AD. We even have the Chinese to thank for that quintessential British hot drink known as tea. Some five thousand years ago, the Chinese became the first tea-producing people, although at first it was used for medicinal purposes.

However, four inventions from the time of the Chinese Empire changed the course of human history more than any others – the compass, paper, paper printing and gunpowder.

The compass was invented during the Han dynasty sometime between the second century BC and first century AD. At first, it was used for fortune telling but by 1000 AD it was commonly used on Chinese ships for navigation. From that point onwards the world would never be the same again as this powerful invention helped explorers navigate the globe and explore parts of it they’d never been to before.

Thanks to a second century BC Han court eunuch called Cai Lun, the world has paper. Before his invention, writings and inscriptions in China were often made on tablets of bamboo or on pieces of silk, neither very convenient to use. Cai Lun then had the game-changing idea to make paper from the bark of trees…the rest they say is history.

It wouldn’t take long before the Chinese had invented a printing process for paper and by the eleventh century AD they had perfected it with a process known as movable-type printing, making it quicker and easier. The technology soon spread across the world and played a vital role in the development of the Renaissance.

Finally gunpowder, the impact of which on our world needs no explanation. Its invention was purely accidental as ninth century Chinese Taoist alchemists attempted to create the elixir of life, a potion that supposedly provides eternal life. The Mongols spread gunpowder to Europe around four centuries later and effectively changed warfare forever.

The Roman Empire

Although not the largest by a long way, the Roman Empire is truly one of history’s greatest and well-known empires.

Beginning in 27 BC when Augustus Caesar, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, became the first emperor of Rome, the Roman Empire reached its peak in the second century AD when it’s territory spanned some five million square kilometres. Soon after though the empire would begin to unravel, due to a number of pressuring factors. In 476 BC, the Barbarians overthrew the last Roman emperor, Romulus, and the Western Roman Empire was officially no more. The Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantine Empire would continue on through for another thousand years.

Roman history author Jem Duducu describes Rome as the ‘Apple of their day'.

During the five hundred years that the Roman Empire was united, the Romans have been credited with a multitude of creations from roads to aqueducts and sewers to the postal service. Surprisingly though many of these innovations did not originate in Rome.

Roman history author Jem Duducu describes Rome as the ‘Apple of their day’. Whilst Apple didn’t invent the smartphone, they did take existing concepts and develop them in brand new ways. Rome did the same thing; they borrowed an idea and then took it to the next level.

Concrete is a great example. Concrete substances had been created long before the Romans, however, they refined the process and built with it extensively for over seven hundred years. The reason why so many Roman buildings still stand to this day is due to the concrete they had created. Our modern concrete is not that far removed from the substance the Romans perfected.

When it comes to original Roman inventions though, there is one that stands above all others – the book. Rome during the first century AD was a place full of written text displayed across various mediums - stone statues and monuments, wax tablets and scrolls. Libraries were filled with these scrolls, made at that time of sheets of Egyptian papyrus.

Whilst the scrolls acted like a book they had many flaws. Not only did you need both hands to unwind and read them but papyrus itself was not a durable material, meaning the scrolls would gradually crack, tear and rot away over time.

So sometime during the first century AD the Romans created the very first incarnation of the modern-day book to address the flaws of the scroll. Known as the Roman codex, pages of papyrus and soon parchment were stacked together before being hinged along one edge. The codices were then often given protective covers, like wood, to keep them safe from the elements. Their convenience meant that the codices took up less space than a scroll and could be easily read with one hand and on a journey. They could also contain greater amounts of written information than scrolls ever could.