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Misconceptions

10 Inventions That Are Far Older Than You Would Expect

Radu Alexander


We associate items with cultures or eras because it helps our brains categorize information. We hear the word “pyramid,” and we instantly associate it with ancient Egypt, despite the numerous non-Egyptian pyramids in the world. Many of these associations are incorrect. Some things we strongly associate with the modern world are actually quite older.

10Rap Battles

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Rappers in early 1980s New York might get most of the credit for this type of lyrical performance, but the practice is actually much older and comes from Scotland. It is called flyting and it was practiced by makaris (Scottish poets) during the 15th and 16th centuries. In this contest, two poets would engage in an exchange of verbal abuse, oftentimes in verse, and the winner was usually decided by the audience. The winner would then enjoy a large cup of mead or beer and more often than not would invite the loser to drink as well.

At one point, flyting was so popular in Scotland that the obscenities and vulgarities were overlooked, though they were otherwise not permitted in public. Flytes would usually take place in large rooms like feasting halls, but the most skilled poets would engage in flyting at the royal courts. King James IV was known to be a big fan of flyting, as well as James V.

Unfortunately, not many flytes from those times have survived. The most memorable one took place at the aforementioned court of James IV. It is known as “The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy” and took place between Walter Kennedy and William Dunbar.



9Dentures

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Dentures’ long history is not particularly surprising. George Washington, for example, was a famous wearer of dentures (although none of his were made of wood, despite the myth). However, dentures go back much further than that. To the time of the Etruscan civilization, in fact, located in modern Italy between the eighth and fourth centuries B.C.

A lot of evidence suggests that the Etruscans were the first to create false teeth as early as 700 B.C. Ancient skulls have been discovered with gold bands inside them, and in Marzabotto, a skull was found with an artificial tooth still attached using gold wire. Apart from dentures, individual crowns have also been discovered, made for molars and canines.

Their dentistry skills were surprisingly advanced, and the dentures they made were quite similar to those still in use centuries later, even in the time of the aforementioned Washington. They were made using either animal or human teeth, which were fixed onto a gold band with metal pins and then secured in place inside the mouth.

8Newspapers

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For a publication to classify as a newspaper, it must publish up-to-date information covering a range of topics at regular intervals and be reasonably accessible to the public. Some would say that a newspaper also has to be printed, which means that they couldn’t have existed prior to the printing press. However, if we overlook that small detail, then newspapers go back a lot farther. Ancient Rome and China both had handwritten news sheets presented to the public on a regular basis detailing current events and other important happenings.

In Rome, it was known as Acta Diurna and is considered to be the first daily gazette, even if it wasn’t even written on paper (it was carved in stone or metal). At first, it only covered legal proceedings and the results of trials. As its popularity grew, it expanded to also include politics, military campaigns, births, deaths, and executions.

In China, the earliest forms of newspapers were known as tipao (also Di Bao). They were imperial bulletins published during the Tang Dynasty. During the Kaiyuan era, they were replaced with Kaiyuan Za Bao, an official publication handwritten on silk and distributed mostly to imperial officials.



7Toothbrushes

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Early dental techniques were of course a lot more primitive. In fact, the first “toothbrushes” were nothing but sticks with frayed ends that were rubbed against the teeth. While these weren’t particularly efficient, they at least gave the user refreshing breath. Such “chew sticks” were found in ancient China, Egypt, and even Babylonia, dating back to 3,000 B.C.

Something similar to a modern toothbrush didn’t appear until the 15th century in China. It was made out of bone or bamboo and had natural bristles made out of the hairs of a hog’s neck. Also around that time, China started trading with Europe, so the design was brought there before long. However, Europeans found the hog hairs too rigid and preferred to replace them with softer horse hairs.

While the design of the toothbrush would be updated from time to time, it really didn’t turn into the modern brush we know today until the beginning of the 20th century, when Wallace Carothers invented nylon for DuPont. Up until that point animal hairs kept being used for the bristles.

6Welfare

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Ancient Rome had quite a few programs in place to provide its citizens with subsidized food. At first, this was not an obligation yet was still quite common when either the government or wealthy individuals wanted to gain favor with the public. They would make donations of corn to the people, known as frumentatio. In 123 B.C., however, a tribune by the name of Gaius Gracchus introduced Lex Frumentaria. Through this law, each citizen of Rome was entitled to an amount of wheat each month available at a reasonable price (somewhere around half the market price). This was only available to fathers of families but was not restricted only to poor Romans.

Roman emperors also had various approaches when it came to dealing with the poor. It was not uncommon for emperors back then to give money to each Roman to celebrate a certain event (usually a military victory). One emperor who instituted new welfare programs was Trajan. While he increased the number of citizens who could receive free grain from the state, he also introduced alimenta, a publicly funded institution that benefited poor children.

5The Odometer

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The odometer is present in most modern vehicles, used to track travel distance. It has been around since the ancient Greeks. It is not certain who the inventor is. Vitruvius first talks of an ancient odometer in his book, and some believe that the device had been invented previously by Archimedes.

The concept of this early odometer was based around chariots having a standard wheel size. A wheel had to turn 400 times to complete a Roman mile. The axle’s pin engaged a 400-tooth cogwheel, itself attached to another gear. When a full revolution completed, the gear released a stone into a box. At the end of the trip, counting the stones determined the distance traveled.

We have no absolute evidence this device was built. However, during his travels, Alexander the Great had specialists called bematists who measured the distances of routes. Their measurements were later recorded by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, and they are so accurate compared to modern measurements that a mechanical device was almost certainly employed.

It wasn’t long until another odometer was invented completely separately in ancient China. Created by prolific Chinese inventor Zhang Heng, the concept is similar, except that a drum was struck every half a kilometer.



4High Heels

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We consider high heels a modern accessory used exclusively by women to enhance their beauty and create the illusion of long, slender legs. However, as popular as they might be today, they are definitely not modern. High heels date all the way back to the ninth century, when they were worn by men.

Ancient Persian ceramic bowls from over 1,000 years ago depict men wearing high-heeled shoes. Back then, the heels had a practical purpose rather than a cosmetic one. The men in question were archers, and the high heels allowed them to secure their feet in stirrups when shooting from horseback.

The heels remained in use for centuries, allowing Persia to assemble the fiercest archers on the planet. Eventually, Persian culture spread to Europe. By the 17th century, high heels became all the rage over there as well. Again, men wore them, but this time, it was the aristocracy, not the soldiers.

The shoes were status symbols. They were completely impractical—the higher the heel, the better. An impractical (and often uncomfortable) wardrobe was constantly used by the European elite to signify privilege. The heels were also dyed red because red dye was an expensive luxury item.

3The Seismometer

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An earthquake can be incredibly devastating. Even though we can’t stop it, an instrument to warn us of seismic motions could prove to be invaluable. Nowadays, we have access to such instruments, and so did the ancient Chinese. The famed Chinese polymath Zhang Heng has the world’s first seismograph to add to his impressive list of achievements.

The invention known as Houfeng Didong Yi (“instrument for inquiring into the wind and the shaking of the earth”) was created in A.D. 132. It was later described in the History of the Later Han Dynasty as a giant bronze vessel. It had eight contact points in the form of bronze dragons with balls in their mouths on the outside of the vessel and a bronze column inside. When an earthquake approached, the column shifted in a particular direction, and a lever made that dragon drop the ball, thus revealing the quake’s direction.

2Roller Skates

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We might associate the rise of the roller skates with the popularity of the roller discos of the ’60s and ’70s, but these inventions are far older. The first record of something we would call a pair of roller skates dates back to the 18th century. A Belgian inventor, John Joseph Merlin, created inline skates in the 1760s. They were ice skates with wheels instead of blades. He wanted to show off his new creations in style, and he wore them at a masquerade ball in the city of Huys, Belgium. However, the story goes that he couldn’t stop and crashed full-speed into a giant mirror.

The first inventor to patent a roller skate design was Frenchman M. Petitbled. His creation looked more like wooden sandals with three wheels attached to the sole. Like Merlin’s invention, the problem with the Petitbled skate was that it was incredibly difficult to turn, stop, or do practically anything other than go forward.

It wasn’t until James Leonard Plimpton invented the precursor to modern roller skates in 1863 that the concept really took off. His design with two pairs of wheels was the first of its kind and was a lot safer and easier to use. Plimpton then turned the office of his furniture business into a skating floor and later founded the New York Roller Skating Association to promote the sport.

1Chewing Gum

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In one form or another, chewing gum has existed for a really long time—somewhere around 5,000 years, in fact. The oldest known chewing gum was discovered on a dig in Finland, and it dates back to the Neolithic age. It was a lump made out of birch bark tar, but it had clear tooth imprints in it. Even back then, chewing gum had a medical benefit. The birch bark contained phenols with antiseptic properties, so the chewing gum was likely used to treat gum infections.

Over the centuries, many other ancient cultures enjoyed their own types of gum. The Greeks made theirs from the resin of the mastic tree. Native Americans chewed resin from spruce trees. However, it is the Aztecs who helped launch the modern chewing gum craze.

They once chewed chicle, a natural gum derived from several species of South American trees. In the 1860s, Mexican general Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna brought chicle to America to inventor Thomas Adams, wanting to use it to manufacture rubber for tires. This failed, but Adams then thought of using chicle as the main ingredient for his Adams New York Chewing Gum. It was a big success, and two years later, Adams was mass-producing it. Chicle remained the core ingredient of gum for 100 years until it was replaced with synthetic rubbers that were cheaper to manufacture.

Radu is a science/history buff who writes for GeeKiez when he isn’t writing for Listverse.