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From Dynasty to Destiny: Ten Celebrated Inventions of Ancient China

Over the past two centuries, new cultural discoveries have almost rewritten history. It was an exciting time, full of adventures and surprises. Around every corner, there are new answers to questions to which we had already imagined answers. And of these breakthroughs, none shines brighter than the impact of ancient Chinese inventions on modern life. As we explore ten of ancient China’s greatest inventions and innovations, you may be surprised at their influence on recent technology.

1. Paper. Paper as we know it was invented in China around the year 105. After seeing earlier attempts made from silk, bamboo sticks and animal skins, Cai Lun had his own idea. After mixing mulberry bark, rags, wheat stalks and other things, a pulp was formed. This paste was pressed into sheets and dried, becoming a raw form of paper. Paper was such an important invention that the manufacturing process was a closely guarded secret. The secret was sure until the 7th century when the art spread to India.

2. The printing press. Before Johann Gutenberg “invented” the printing press in the 1440s, China created a type of printing press between 206 BC and 45 AD. It was made using stone tablets to create a “rubbing” of famous Buddhist and Confucian texts. Next came block printing in the Sui Dynasty. In block printing, images and words were engraved on wooden boards, coated in ink and pressed onto sheets of paper. Later mobile type printing presses were introduced. According to the authors of Ancient Inventions, “By the year 1000, paginated books in the modern style had replaced scrolls – 450 years before Gutenberg.”

3. The first book. Due to the early advent of the printing press, China also lays claim to the first book. In 868, nearly six hundred years before the Gutenberg Bible, the first known book was printed. By the end of the Tang dynasty, China had bookstores in almost every city.

4. Paper money. While today you prefer to carry plenty of cash instead of coins, that wasn’t always the case. The idea of ​​paper money was first attempted under Emperor Han Wu-Ti (140-87 BC) after war had drained the treasury. He issued Treasury notes, worth and in exchange for 400,000 copper coins. Instead of paper, the Emperor used white deer skin. But the creature was so rare that the idea quickly lost appeal. In the early 800s, the idea revived to deter highway robbers. In 812 the government was printing money again. In the year 1023, silver had an expiration date and was already plagued by inflation and counterfeiting. Nearly six hundred years later, paper money headed west, first printed in Sweden in 1601.

5. The abacus. Long before Texas Instruments, the first calculator was in the works. The abacus dates from around 200 BC. It is a very advanced tool with a simple design. The wood is made in a rectangular frame with rods running from the base to the top. About 2/3 from the base, a divider crosses the frame, called a count bar. On each of the rods are pearls. All beads above the count bar equal five. Those below equal one. The rows of rods are read from right to left. The rightmost bar takes the place of one, the next takes the place of tens, then that of hundreds, and so on. Although its design may seem complex, there are Chinese people today so proficient that they can solve difficult math problems faster than someone using a calculator!

6. The decimal system. In the West, the decimal system appeared quite recently. Its first believed example was in a Spanish manuscript dated to around 976. But, the first true example goes back much further. In China, an inscription dated to the 13th century BC, “547 days” was written as “five hundred plus four decades plus seven days”. The Chinese probably created the decimal system because their language depended on characters (like pictures) instead of an alphabet. Each number had its own unique character. Without the decimal system, the Chinese would have had great difficulty memorizing all these new characters. By using units of units, tens, hundreds, etc., the Chinese saved time and trouble.

7. The mechanical clock. In the year 732, a Buddhist monk and mathematician invented the first mechanical clock. He named it “A bird’s eye view spherical map of the heavens driven by water”. Like previous clocks, the water gave it energy, but the machines framed the movement. But, after a few years, corrosion and freezing temperatures took their toll. It wasn’t until 1090, when astronomer Su Sung designed his mechanical marvel “Cosmic Engine”, that a more reliable watch was made. Created for Emperor Ying Zong, this clock had a tower over 30 feet high. It housed machines that, among other things, brought wooden puppets out of one of five doors at regular intervals throughout the day. (Kind of like the modern idea of ​​a cuckoo clock.) The whole machine was powered by a giant waterwheel. This clock functioned until 1126, when it was dismantled by the conquering Tartars and moved to Beijing for several more years. The first clock reference in Western history dates back to 1335, in the Church of Saint Gotthard in Milan.

8. The Planetarium. A planetarium is a large enclosed space that shows the stars and constellations inside. Orbitoscope was the name of the first projection planetarium. It was built in Basil in 1912 by Prof. E. Hinderman. But, again, China is the mother of this invention. The first planetarium is attributed to the design of an early emperor. As one source states, an astronomer named Jamaluddin created a planetarium during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), along with a perpetual calendar and other important astronomical devices.

9. The earthquake sensor. The first earthquake sensor was also an interesting work of art. It was a bronze cylinder about 8 feet around, with 8 dragons perched above 8 open-mouthed frogs. In each dragon’s mouth lay a bronze ball. When an earthquake occurred, a pendulum inside the cylinder would swing. He knocked the ball out of the dragon’s mouth and into the frog’s mouth. The back of this frog was then facing the direction of the center of the earthquake. Chang Heng invented it in 132 AD (in the Han dynasty), nearly 600 years before the first Western sensor was made in France. Later, in 1939, Imamura Akitsune recreated the invention and proved its effectiveness.

10. The helicopter rotor and propeller. Although the ancient Chinese did not invent the helicopter, they participated in its creation. In the 4th century AD, they invented a toy called “Bamboo Dragonfly”. You’ve probably seen them as prizes at local fairs or carnivals. It was a spinning top, with a pencil-shaped base and a small helicopter-shaped blade at the end. The top was wrapped with a cord. When you pulled the cord, the blade would spin and soar through the air. This toy was studied by Sir George Cayley in 1809 and played a role in the birth of modern aviation. It was not until the early 1900s that the first helicopter took flight.

It is sometimes mind-boggling to realize that what seemed like modern ideas or inventions are much older than we had imagined. And there are likely to be more inventions to discover. More historical changes to make. In the conclusion to The Greatest Inventions of the Past 2,000 Years, Jared Diamond summed it up nicely by referring to the changing view of history and its inventors: “So forget those stories of genius inventors who perceived a need of society, solved it alone – now, and thus transformed the world. There has never been such a genius …….. If Gutenberg had not designed the best alloys and inks used in ancient printing, another contemporary tinkerer with metals and oils would have done……give Gutenberg some of the credit—but not too much.”

Questions:

1. Choose one of the mentioned inventions. Explain how different the world would be if it hadn’t been invented.

2. Why do you think there was such a large time gap between Eastern and Western dates of invention?

3. What are two other inventions from ancient China? Do some research and find out when the idea was introduced into Western culture.

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