Ancient Asian Inventions

3,500 - 1,000 BCE

Once the most basic inventions had been created in prehistoric times - food, transport, clothing, and alcohol - humanity was free to create more luxurious goods. In ancient times, Asian inventors came up with such fripperies as silk, soap, glass, ink, parasols, and kites. Some inventions of a more serious nature also appeared at this time: writing, irrigation, and map-making, for example.
Colorful silks on display in India; the fabric was invented in China c. 4,000 B.C.
Colorful silks on display in Thailand; the fabric was invented in China c. 4,000 B.C. ReefRaff on Flickr.com
Chinese legends say that the Empress Lei Tsu first discovered silk around 4,000 BCE, when a silkworm cocoon fell into her hot tea. As the empress fished the cocoon out of her teacup, she found that it was unraveling into long, smooth filaments. Rather than flinging the sodden mess away, she decided to spin the fibers into thread. This legend may be nothing more, but certainly Chinese farmers were cultivating silkworms and mulberry trees (for silkworm feed) by 3,200 BCE. More »

3,000 BCE | First written language, Sumer

Cuneiform was one of the first forms of writing.
Cuneiform was one of the first forms of writing. procsilas on Flickr.com

Creative minds all around the world have tackled the problem of capturing the stream of sounds we call speech, and rendering it into a written form. In regions as diverse as Mesopotamia, China, and Meso-America, different solutions have been found for this intriquing riddle. Perhaps the first people to write things down were the Sumerians, living in what is now Iraq, who invented a writing system based on syllables around 3,000 BCE. Much like modern Chinese writing, each symbol in Sumerian represented a syllable or idea, which could be combined with other symbols to form entire words.

3,000 BCE | Invention of man-made glass, Phoenicia

Glass, such as the art shown here, was invented in the Middle East.
Glass, such as the art shown here, was invented in the Middle East. Amy the Nurse on Flickr.com
The Roman historian Pliny tells us that the Phoenicians discovered glass-making around 3,000 BCE. when some sailors lit a fire on a sandy beach on the Syrian coast. The sailors did not have any stones on which to rest their cooking pots, so they used blocks of potassium nitrate (salt peter) as supports, instead. When they woke up the next day, they found that the fire had fused silicon from the sand with soda from the salt peter, forming glass. Naturally occuring glass can be found when lightning strikes sand, and also in the form of volcanic obsidian. The Phoenicians thus likely recognized the substance produced by their cooking fire. The earliest known glass vessel is from Egypt, and dates to about 1450 BCE.

2,800 BCE | Invention of soap, Babylon

Soap was invented in Asia nearly 5,000 years ago.
Soap was invented in Asia nearly 5,000 years ago. soapylovedeb on Flickr.com
Around 2,800 BCE, Babylonians (in modern-day Iraq) discovered that they could create an effective cleanser by mixing animal fat with wood ashes. They boiled the two ingredients together in clay cylinders to produce the world's first known bars of soap.

2,500 BCE | Invention of ink, China

Ink was invented around 2,500 B.C. in both China and Egypt.
Ink was invented around 2,500 B.C. in both China and Egypt. b1gw1ght on Flickr
Prior to the invention of ink, people had to carve words and symbols into stones, or carve stamps of each symbol and then press them into clay tablets in order to write. It was a time-consuming task, and the resultant documents were unwieldy or fragile. Enter ink! This handy combination of fine soot and glue seems to have been invented almost simultaneously in China and Egypt, around 2,500 BCE. Scribes could then simply brush words and pictures onto the surface of cured animal skins, papyrus, or eventually paper, for light-weight, portable, and relatively durable documents.

2,400 BCE | Invention of the parasol, Mesopotamia

The parasol keeps sun off of delicate skin. It was invented at least 4,400 years ago.
The parasol keeps sun off of delicate skin. It was invented at least 4,400 years ago. Yuki Yaginuma on Flickr.com

The first record of someone using a parasol comes from a Mesopotamian carving dating back to 2,400 BCE. A stretched cloth over a wooden frame, the parasol was used at first only to protect nobles from the blazing desert sun. It was such a good idea that soon, according to ancient works of art, the nobility of sunny places from Rome to India were being shaded by parasol-wielding servants.

2,400 BCE | Invention of irrigation canals, Sumer and China

Irrigation canals were invented simultaneously in Sumer and China c. 2,400 B.C.
Irrigation canals were invented simultaneously in Sumer and China c. 2,400 B.C. Hasan Iqbal Wamy on Flickr.com
Every farmer knows that rain can be an unreliable source of water for crops. To solve this problem, the farmers of both Sumer and China began to dig irrigation canal systems around 2,400 BCE. A series of ditches and gates directed river water out onto the fields, where thirsty crops waited. Unfortunately for the Sumerians, their land had once been a sea bed. Frequent irrigation drove ancient salts to the surface, salinating the land and ruining it for agriculture. The once-Fertile Crescent became unable to support crops by 1,700 BCE, and the Sumerian culture collapsed.

2,300 BCE | Invention of cartography (map-making) in Mesopotamia

An ancient map of Asia; cartography was invented on the continent in 2,300 B.C.
An ancient map of Asia; cartography was invented on the continent in 2,300 B.C. Map House of London / Getty Images
The earliest known map was created during the reign of Sargon of Akkad, who ruled in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) around 2,300 BCE. The map depicts northern Iraq. Although map-reading is second nature to most modern-day humans, it was quite an intellectual leap to conceive of drawing vast areas of land, at a much reduced scale, and from a birds-eye point of view.

1,500 BCE | Invention of the oar, Phoenicia

The oar was invented by the nautical Phoenicians of what is now Lebanon.
The oar was invented by the nautical Phoenicians of what is now Lebanon. mason bryant on Flickr.com
It comes as no surprise that the sea-faring Phoenicians invented the oar. Egyptians began using paddles to move up and down the Nile as early as 3,000 BCE. The Phoenician sailors took the same idea, and gave it added leverage by fixing a fulcrum (the oarlock) to the side of the boat, and sliding the oar into it. Today, oars are used mainly in recreational boating. Until the invention of steamboats and motorboats, however, oars were still very important in commercial and military sailing. Even when sailing ships were the technology of the day, people still rowed out to their ships in smaller boats... propelled by oars.
Kites were invented in China about 3,000 years ago.
Kites were invented in China about 3,000 years ago. ronnie44052 on Flickr.com
One Chinese legend says that a farmer tied a string onto his straw hat to keep it on his head during a windstorm, and thus the kite was born. Whatever the actual origin of the idea, Chinese people have been flying kites for thousands of years. Early kites were likely made of silk stretched over a bamboo frame, although some may have been made of large leaves or animal hides. Kites are fun toys, of course, but some kites were also used to carry military messages, or were fitted with hooks and bait for fishing. More »

Classical Era Asian Inventions

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Szczepanski, Kallie. "Ancient Asian Inventions." ThoughtCo, Jun. 29, 2017, thoughtco.com/ancient-asian-inventions-195169. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2017, June 29). Ancient Asian Inventions. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ancient-asian-inventions-195169 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Ancient Asian Inventions." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ancient-asian-inventions-195169 (accessed November 22, 2017).