Post-Rome Inventions

 Posted by on 16 December 2003 at 5:07 pm  Uncategorized
Dec 162003

Eugene asked his readers about fairly obvious and useful inventions developed after ancient Rome. He blogged:

Here again is the query: I am looking for items that match all of the following conditions, and I’d love some help, if any of you would be kind enough to provide. Which items (products or processes) satisfy all these criteria:

  1. They were unknown to people in ancient Rome circa 150 B.C.
  2. They could be manufactured with then-existing technology and then-available raw materials.
  3. They would be at least modestly useful in that era.
  4. Even a nontechnically minded person today — say, a smart 12-year-old — would know how to make and use them. This is particularly important, and one on which many suggestions seem to founder.
  5. Their absence would be pretty clearly visible.

Eugene notes the common suggestions include stirrups, whipped cream, cowpox as a vaccine for smallpox, penicillin, Arabic numerals, sterile technique, distillation, the printing press, the scientific method, pasteurization, the horseshoe, the toothbrush, the compass, the wheelbarrow, glass lenses, gunpowder, soap, and horse plow collars.

So here’s my proposal:

My suggestion for your query about Ancient Rome is the chimney. I thought of this invention due to the historical/time travel fiction novel Household Gods by Harry Turtledove and Judith Tarr. In it, the protagonist (a liberal LA lawyer) travels back in time to Ancient Rome, where she slips into the body and life of a proprietor of a restaurant. When she first arrives, surveys her cooking implements, noticing:

There didn’t seem to be a chimney. There was a hole in the roof above each fireplace… and the window was open, unglazed and unscreened. That was all the venting there seemed to be. Soot stained the roofbeams and the plaster of the walls.

“You would think,” she said to the nearer fireplace, “someone here would have thought of the chimney.”

– Page 70, found thanks to Amazon’s “search inside the book” feature

Although certainly chimneys could have been built in Ancient Rome, apparently no one really thought of them until about 1000 A.D. (See here.) Apparently, they weren’t common until a few centuries later. (See here.) From what I’ve read, it is somewhat tricky to build chimneys that don’t smoke, but I suspect that a smart 12 year old could, with some trial and error, figure out how to do it.

I love these little historical puzzles!

P.S. On a totally unrelated note, don’t miss this interesting commentary on the Democrats by Orson Scott Card.

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