TOP 7 GREAT ANCIENT CHINESE INVENTIONS
1. ROW PLANTING
FEUDAL PERIOD-SIXTH CENTURY BC
The Chinese started planting crops in rows sometime in the sixth century BC. This technique allows the crops to grow faster and stronger. It facilitates more efficient planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting. There is also documentation that they realized that as the wind travels over rows of plants there is less damage. This obvious development was not instituted in the Western world for another 2200 years. Master Lu wrote in the “Spring and Autumn Annals”: “If the crops are grown in rows they will mature rapidly because they will not interfere with each other’s growth. The horizontal rows must be well drawn, the vertical rows made with skill, for if the lines are straight the wind will pass gently through.” This text was compiled around 240 BC.
FEUDAL PERIOD-FOURTH CENTURY BC
The Chinese developed a lodestone compass to indicate direction sometime in the fourth century BC. These compasses were south-pointing and were primarily used on land as divination tools and direction finders. Written in the fourth century BC, in the Book of the Devil Valley Master, it is written that “lodestone makes iron come or it attracts it.” The spoons were made from lodestone, while the plates were of bronze. Thermoremanence needles were being produced for mariners by the year 1040, with common use recorded by 1119. Thermoremanence technology, still in use today, was “discovered” by William Gilbert in about 1600.
3. IRON PLOWS
HAN DYNASTY CIRCA 202 BC-220 AD
One of the major developments of ancient Chinese agriculture was the use of iron moldboard plows. Though probably first developed in the fourth century BC and promoted by the central government, they were popular and common by the Han dynasty. (So I am using the more conservative date.) A major invention was the adjustable strut, which, by altering the distance of the blade and the beam, could precisely set the depth of the plow. This technology was not instituted in England and Holland until the seventeenth century, sparking an abundance of food which some experts say was a necessary prerequisite for the industrial revolution.
4. DEEP DRILLING
HAN DYNASTY CIRCA 202 BC-220 AD
By the first century BC, the Chinese had developed the technology for deep-drilling boreholes. Some of these reached depths of 4800 feet. They used technology that would be easily recognizable to a modern engineer and layperson alike. Derricks would rise as much as 180 feet above the borehole. They stacked rocks with center holes (tube or doughnut-shaped) from the surface to the deep stone layer as a guide for their drills (similar to today’s guide tubes). With hemp ropes and bamboo cables reaching deep into the ground, they employed cast iron drills to reach the natural gas they used as a fuel to evaporate water from brine to produce salt. The natural gas was carried via bamboo pipes to where it was needed. There is also some evidence that gas was used for light. While I could not find exactly when deep drilling was first used by the Europeans, I did not find any evidence prior to the early industrial revolution (mid-eighteenth century). In the United States, the first recorded deep drill was in West Virginia in the 1820s.
5. HARNESSES FOR HORSES
AGE OF DIVISION CIRCA 220-581 AD
Throat harnesses have been used throughout the world to harness horses to carts and sleds. These harnesses press back on the neck of the horse thus limiting the full strength of the animal. In the late feudal period (fourth century BC), there is pictorial evidence (from the Chinese state of Chu) of a horse with a wooden chest yoke. By the late Han dynasty, the yoke was made from softer straps and was used throughout the country. By the fifth century, the horse collar, which allows the horse to push with its shoulders, was developed. This critical invention was introduced into Europe approximately by 970 and became widespread within 200 years. Because of the greater speed of horses over oxen, as well as greater endurance, agricultural output throughout Europe increased significantly.
SUI DYNASTY 581-618 AD
Porcelain is a very specific kind of ceramic produced by the extreme temperatures of a kiln. The materials fuse and form a glass and mineral compound known for its strength, translucence, and beauty. Invented during the Sui dynasty (but possibly earlier) and perfected during the Tang dynasty (618-906), most notably by Tao-Yue (c. 608-c. 676), Chinese porcelain was highly prized throughout the world. The porcelain of Tao-Yue used “white clay” found on the edge of the Yangtze River, where he lived. By the time of the Sung dynasty (960-1279), the art of porcelain had reached its peak. In 1708 the German physicist Tschirnhausen invented European porcelain, thus ending the Chinese monopoly.
7. PRINTING MOVABLE TYPE
SONG DYNASTY 960-1279 AD
Paper having been invented by the Chinese is well known (by Cai Lun, circa 50-121 AD), and is one of the great Chinese inventions. The recipe for this paper still exists and can be followed by today’s artisans. In 868 the first printed book, using full-page woodcuts, was produced. About a hundred years later, the innovations of Bi Sheng were described. Using clay-fired characters he made reusable types and developed typesetting techniques. Though used successfully to produce books, his technology was not perfected until 1298. By contrast, Gutenberg’s bibles the first European book printed with movable type were printed in the 1450s. Interestingly, the Chinese did not start using metal type until the 1490s.