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The potter's wheel: 3000 BC

When a pot is built up from the base by hand, it is impossible that it should be perfectly round. The solution to this problem ia the potter's wheel, which has been a crucial factor in the history of ceramics. It is not known when or where the potter's wheel is introduced. Indeed it is likely that it develops very gradually, from a platform on which the potter turns the pot before shaping another side (thus avoiding having to walk around it).

By about 3000 BC a simple revolving wheel is a part of the potter's equipment in Mesopotamia, the cradle of so many innovations.

The wheel: 3000 BC

The wheel is often quoted as the single most important advance in early technology. It is sometimes said to have evolved from the potter's wheel. Both are first known at approximately the same period, around 3000 BC. But they share no geographical origin and it is intrinsically unlikely that either form would suggest the other. Each is a natural solution to a very different problem.

In early technology a wagon wheel can only be made from wood. Several of the earliest known wheels have been found in the heavily forested regions of Europe.

The Egyptian papyrus: 3000 BC

The discovery of an easily portable substance to write on is almost as old as writing itself. Around 3000 BC, in Egypt, people begin making a flexible smooth surface, which will accept and retain ink without blur or smudge.

It is known by the name of the aquatic plant which provides the structure - papyrus. It will remain in regular use longer than any other material in the history of written documents.

The plough and draught animals: from 3000 BC

The plough is almost certainly the first implement for which humans use a source of power than their own muscles.

When planting seeds, it is essential to break up the ground. In the early stages of agriculture this is achieved by hacking and scraping with a suitably pointed implement - the antler of a deer, or a hooked and pointed branch of a tree. But a useful furrow can more easily be achieved by dragging a point along the surface of the ground. The first ploughs consist of a sharp point of timber, sometimes hardened in a flame or tipped with flint, projecting downwards at the end of a long handle.

In the light soil of Egypt and Mesopotamia, where ploughing is first undertaken, a simple pointed implement of this kind is sufficient to break up the earth and form a shallow trench. Such a plough can be dragged by a couple of men. But the use of draught animals, from at least 3000 BC, greatly speeds up the process.

In northern Europe, with heavier soil, this type of plough is ineffective. A more elaborate machine is developed, probably by the Celts in the 1st century BC, in which a sharb blade cuts into the earth and an angled board turns it over to form a furrow.

Silk: c.2850 BC

People in China find a use for the cocoons spun by the caterpillars of certain moths. If moistened, the thread of a cocoon can be carefully unwound. Twisted with the thread of other cocoons, it will make a filament strong enough for weaving. The result is silk.

The earliest known silk consists of some threads and woven fragments assigned by carbon-dating to about 2850 BC. The thread of the earliest examples is from wild silk moths, indigenous to China. But soon one species of the moth, bombyx mori, is domesticated. The manufacture of silk becomes one of the most jealously guarded secrets of early Chinese civilization.

Glass: c.1500 BC

In Phoenicia, in about 1500 BC, the making of glass becomes a practical craft. Glass beads are known in Egypt 1000 years earlier, but they are probably shaped from glass which has been formed accidentally where the necessary materials and heat coincide.

The Phoenicians discover how to make glass on a predictable basis (from sand, limestone and sodium carbonate) and they invent ways of shaping this difficult but magically appealing substance into small vessels. The basic method, known as core-forming, consists of applying the molten glass to the outside of a solid core of soft clay. When the glass has cooled and hardened, the core can be scraped out.

These Phoenician skills are carried south to Egypt during the 15th century BC, after the shores of the eastern Mediterranean are conquered by the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose. Small bottles, to hold precious oils for cosmetic purposes, become treasured items in rich Egyptian households. The body of the vessel is usually a transparent blue, sometimes decorated with thread-like rings of white, yellow or green applied to the surface.

Glass is an expensive rarity, and remains so in Egypt and elsewhere (Mesopotamia, Greece, Persia) until Roman times. The change to a more widely available household material results from another breakthrough in glass technology - again in Phoenicia, now transformed into Roman Syria.

Sundial and water clock: from the 2nd millennium BC

The movement of the sun through the sky makes possible a simple estimate of time, from the length and position of a shadow cast by a vertical stick. (It also makes possible more elaborate calculations, as in the attempt of Erathosthenes to measure the world - see Erathosthenes and the camels). If marks are made where the sun's shadow falls, the time of day can be recorded in a consistent manner.

The result is the sundial. An Egyptian example survives from about 800 BC, but the principle is certainly familiar to astronomers very much earlier. However it is difficult to measure time precisely on a sundial, because the sun's path throug the sky changes with the seasons. Early attempts at precision in time-keeping rely on a different principle.

The water clock, known from a Greek word as the clepsydra, attempts to measure time by the amount of water which drips from a tank. This would be a reliable form of clock if the flow of water could be perfectly controlled. In practice it cannot. The clepsydra has an honourable history from perhaps 1400 BC in Egypt, through Greece and Rome and the Arab civlizations and China, and even up to the 16th century in Europe. But it is more of a toy than a timepiece.

The hourglass, using sand on the same principle, has an even longer career. It is a standard feature on 18th-century pulpits in Britain, ensuring a sermon of sufficient length. In a reduced form it can still be found timing an egg.

Navigation by Polaris: from c.1100 BC

The use of Polaris, the pole star, as a navigational aid is credited to the Phoenicians (the position of the pole star in the sky is so close to the northern end of the axis on which the earth rotates that it appears static throughout each night and is a reliable indication of due north). The Phoenicians also build up a store of information about winds and currents, which they guard jealously as valuable trade secrets.

One extraordinary indication of their skills is an expedition of about 600 BC. Sponsored by an Egyptian pharaoh, Phoenician ships make a complete voyage round the coast of Africa (see the First sea voyage round Africa).

Glazed ceramics: 9th - 1st century BC

In all the early civilizations, from Mesopotamia and Egypt onwards, pottery is a highly developed craft. An outstanding achievement is the Greek ceramic tradition of the 6th and 5th century BC. But technically all these pots suffer from a major disadvantage. Fired earthenware is tough but it is porous. Liquid will soak into it and eventually leak through it. This has some advantages with water (where evaporation from the surface cools the contents of the jug) but is less appropriate for storing wine or milk.

The solution is the addition of a glaze. This technological breakthrough is made in Mesopotamia in the 9th century BC for decorative tiles. It is not adapted for practical everyday purposes until many centuries later.

A glaze is a substance, applied to the inner or outer surface of an unfired pot, which vitrifies in the kiln - meaning that it forms a glassy skin, which fuses with the earthenware and makes it impermeable to liquids.

But glazes, which can be of any colour, also have a highly decorative quality. It is for this purpose that they are first developed, as a facing for ceramic tiles, in Mesopotamia from the 9th century BC. The most famous examples are from the 6th century palace of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon.

Glazed pots make their appearance in the Middle East in about the 1st century BC, possibly being developed first in Egypt. The characteristic colour is green, from copper in the glaze. Pottery of this kind is common in imperial Rome a century later.

By this time glazed pottery is also being manufactured in Han dynasty China. It may be that the development occurs independently in the Middle East and in China, but by now there could also be a direct influence in either direction. Rome and China are already linked by the Silk Road, and glazed ceramics are attractive commodities.

Lock and key: c.710 BC

In Assyria, at Khorsabad, an expensive wooden bolt is installed in the new palace of Sargon II. It is the world's earliest surviving lock.

Within the bolt are several holes. When the bolt is pushed home, wooden pins fall down into these holes from within the frame of the door, holding the bolt fast. The only way of releasing it is to insert a key, shaped like a tooth brush, into a hollow cavity in the bolt below the pin holes. The key has projecting pins in the necessary pattern. When pressed upwards they will raise the other pins, allowing the bolt to be withdrawn.

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