Technology sets us apart from all other living things. It’s true that, compared to other animals, we have larger brains and opposable thumbs, but these are what made technology available to us in the first place. And with the use of this technology, we became the dominant species on Earth.
But unfortunately, not all of this technology is available to us now. Some of it got lost in the mists of time, while others are deemed as classified by various governments, and we’ll probably never hear about them anyway. And there are still other pieces of technology which have been created, but considered as not economically viable by some influential people. Whatever the case, we’ll take a look at 10 such pieces of technology we’ll probably never have the chance to use.
10. Damascus Steel
During the Middle Ages, swords made out of a metal known as Damascus Steel were produced in the Middle East, by using a raw material known as “wootz,” brought there from India and Sri Lanka. This Damascus Steel was so strong that it was said it could cut through any other type of sword. By examining the steel, scientists could deduce that it had a high concentration of carbon in its mixture, making it much stronger than regular steel, but at the same time, flexible enough to not shatter on impact.
Even though people now know the composition of Damascus Steel, they don’t know the exact process through which the medieval Arabs were able to make it. According to Dr. Helmut Nickel, curator of the Arms and Armor Division of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, legend says that the best blades were quenched in “dragon blood.” What this “dragon blood” really was is a matter of debate and possibly the key to making Damascus steel. Some stories say that such blades were quenched in donkey urine, or that of a redheaded boy (gingers are the work of the devil, after all), or even plunging the still red hot blade into the body of a muscular slave so that “his strength would be transferred to the sword.” While all these processes were based on superstition, Dr. Nickel believes that all of them contributed to the process by adding nitrogen to the alloy.
Whatever the case, the exact recipe was lost, due in part to the secrecy with which the blacksmiths were making the alloy, as well as the emergence of gunpowder. Other theories say that the wootz ore ran low, and they could no longer make Damascus Steel. The period in which this super steel disappeared was around 1750 AD.
9. Vitrum Flexile (Flexible Glass)
The story behind flexible glass is more of a legend than anything else. The “tale” takes place in Ancient Rome during Emperor Tiberius’ rule (14-37 AD). It is said that one day, a glassmaker requested an audience at the imperial court in order to present a glass vial to the Emperor. After Tiberius examined it and saw nothing out of the ordinary, the glassmaker took the vial and threw it to the ground. Instead of shattering like any other ordinary glass vial should, it just bent slightly at the point of impact. With the use of a small hammer he was even able to restore the bottle to its original shape.
Seeing this, the Emperor, truly amazed, asked the glassmaker if he revealed his invention to anyone else. After saying no, Tiberius had the glassmaker killed and his workshop burned, fearing that the new invention would undermine the value of gold and silver in the imperial treasury and collapse the economy. While it is quite possible this would had been the economic outcome, had the glassmaker begun producing the vitrum flexile, it also made sure nobody would ever see or use this technological marvel for the next 2,000 years.
Normal glass is based on silicon dioxide (sand) with sodium and calcium as the metal oxides. But scientists nowadays believe that in order to make vitrum flexile, boric acid or borax should also be added to the mix. Our glassmaker might have had access to this element, either brought to Rome via the Silk Road, all the way from a remote region in Tibet, or he found some lying around near the steam vents of the Tuscan Maremma, north of Rome. In 2012, the American glass and ceramics company Corning introduced a new product called “Willow Glass,” which is very flexible and used in the construction of solar energy collectors. The only difference is that this glass can’t be returned to its original state.
8. Mithridatium: An Antidote to All Poisons
An antidote to all poisons, as well as a cure to many ailments, is said to have been developed by king Mithridates VI of Pontus, and then later refined by the personal physician of Emperor Nero of Rome. According to historians, the original formula was lost, but did manage to survive as late as the Renaissance, with some mentions in the German, French, and Spanish pharmacopoeias of the 19th century. It is almost certain that by this point, the original recipe would have been lost already.
Nevertheless, some say that among the 36 ingredients found in this universal antidote were opium, small quantities of various poisons and their antidotes, and even chopped vipers. According to Adrienne Mayor, an historian at Stanford University, Sergei Popov, a USSR biological weapon specialist, tried to recreate it before defecting to the US, but to no avail.
7. Greek Fire
Among all of the technologies on this list, we’re glad that this particular item has been lost to us. Back in 673 AD, Kallinikos from Heliopolis, a citizen of the Byzantine Empire, came up with a weapon of such great devastation, it’s still frightening just thinking about it. This is Greek Fire, or as its inventors called it, “Liquid Fire.” With this weapon, the Byzantines managed to save their Empire from being conquered by the Arabs in two attacks on Constantinople, in a number of wars against the Rus and Bulgarians, as well as a series of internal revolts. All of these battles ended in success.
Most likely made of a petroleum based mixture, Greek Fire was extremely flammable, burning at high temperatures and sticking to any surface it came in contact with. It even continued burning on water, making it ideal for naval warfare. It was sprayed out of a cannon type mechanism, and powered by a pump, acting quite similar to a present-day flamethrower firing napalm. It was also used in the form of a hand grenade. Besides the obvious damage it inflicted on ships and soldiers, it had an immensely terrifying effect on enemy morale, being a perfect terror weapon. Its impression on people back then is similar to the introduction of nuclear weapons in the 20th century.
Not wanting it to fall into the wrong hands, the recipe for this Byzantine super-weapon was a closely guarded secret. It was handed down from one Emperor to the next, and together with a handful of trusted craftsmen, they were the only ones who knew this recipe. This is also the reason why it was forgotten, as the Byzantine Empire entered a period of instability and the chain of passing down the formula was eventually broken.
6. Incan Stonemasonry
Of all the things that made the Incas great, their wall building is among the most interesting and a mystery in its own right – so much so that some people have gone so far as to credit these techniques to demons, aliens, or any other higher power one could think of. While we do know that the Incas were the ones who made those walls, it’s fairly uncertain as to how they did it.
The first mystery here is how they were able to bring a 140 ton stone slab from the quarry, to the construction site, some 35 kilometers away. Because the Incas hadn’t yet discovered the wheel, and based on the stone’s polished surface, it is possible that they simply dragged them there on gravel roads, using at least 2,500 men to do it. The problem is not this, but rather how so many men fit on an 8-meter wide ramp, while pulling this immense stone uphill. Furthermore, the stones used at Saqsaywaman were fine-dressed at the Rumiqolqa quarry and show no signs of dragging.
The next bit of mystery is the precise positioning of these stones, as they fit perfectly with one another and without the use of any mortars or adhesives. We’re talking about being unable to even fit a single sheet of paper between any two stones. Located in an earthquake prone area of the world, it is a true feat of engineering that these walls are still standing, centuries after their construction. Archaeologists believe that it required a lot of measuring and planning beforehand, rather than a trial and error process, but whatever the case, nobody knows how the Incas were able to achieve it.
5. Roman Concrete
While we’re on the topic of ancient construction, we can talk about Roman concrete. Even though the Romans were heavily influenced by the Greeks in their architecture, they were able to take those constructions to a whole new level. While the concrete we use today is made to last about 120 years, the one the Romans were using made their buildings last for millennia.
Some of these Roman buildings are so spectacular in their construction and beauty, that modern builders would never attempt something similar, not even with today’s technology. It’s been known for a while now that the volcanic sand used in Roman concrete and mortar made their buildings last for this long. Moreover, while Portland cement (the one we use today) needs temperatures of about 1,450 degrees Celsius to be produced, Roman concrete only needed roughly 900 degrees, or even less. And given the fact that we use more than 19 billion tons of concrete per year, a reduction in production cost can go a long way. Not to mention that the production for Portland cement accounts for 7% of all CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, the planet would thank us for emulating the Romans.
The only thing with Roman concrete is that, while we know what it’s made out of, we don’t know precisely how it’s made, even though we know the basic recipe. Scientists were stuck up until a group of archaeologists stumbled upon the recipe, which was written down by the Roman architect Vitruvius. It only remains to be seen if we will attempt to perfect and use it in our constructions anytime soon.
4. The Iron Pillar of Delhi: The Iron That Never Rusts
There is an iron pillar in the Qutb complex of Delhi, standing 23 feet, eight inches high, and a diameter of 16 inches. This isn’t anything all that out of the ordinary. But the fact that it’s 1,600 years old, out in the open and not completely rusted, is. In fact, with the exception of a thin layer of surface rust, which looks like it’s partially keeping the metal in its current state, the pole and the iron it’s made out of are in pristine condition.
The tower has not always been in Delhi, having been moved there from central India, from a town called Udayagiri, somewhere around 1050 AD. As to why the pillar is still standing, there are several theories to it. One is based on the material it’s made out of, which is 98% wrought iron of pure quality, while the other is based on environmental factors, which somehow make the pillar not form any more rust.
Others believe that there is a strong correlation between the processing, structure, and properties of the pillar’s iron. All of these work together and have formed the outer, thin layer of rust we mentioned before, keeping the iron underneath from oxidizing any further. A fence was built around the tower to protect it from tourists who believe that by touching it, the pillar will bring good fortune. While this is innocent enough, it could peel off the existing layer of rust, exposing the metal underneath.
The pillar at Delhi is not unique in the world, and other such iron pillars exist at Dhar, Mandu, Mount Abu, Kodochadri Hill, as well as several iron cannons (all from India). That means it’s fairly safe to assume that there is something else at work, other than a series of fortunate events that have kept all these objects in such tremendous, almost new condition.
3. Tesla’s Free Wireless Energy
By most accounts, Nikola Tesla was decades ahead of his time when it came to electricity and wireless technology. He was the one who discovered alternative current and gained a lot of fame for his victory over Thomas Edison in the well-publicized “battle of currents.” Here, he proved that his alternating current was far more practical and safe than Edison’s direct current. And soon enough, the whole world would use Tesla’s discovery, as well as his other great inventions (the Tesla coil, the radio transmitter, and fluorescent lamps). By 1900 he was widely regarded as America’s greatest electrical engineer.
In 1905, Tesla was ready to put into practice his greatest invention yet, by building a 187-foot-tall Wardenclyffe Tower. Atop this tower was a 55 ton dome of conductive metals, which continued down the tower and then 300 feet into the ground itself. His aim was to use both the planet itself and the overhead ionosphere as huge electrical conductors, transporting electricity wirelessly anywhere on the face of the Earth. Famed financier and investor J.P. Morgan saw the potential such distribution could bring and invested $150,000 to relocate Tesla’s lab to Long Island, to construct a pilot plant for this “World Wireless System.”
Not long after construction began, another competing scientist named Guglielmo Marconi executed the world’s first Trans-Atlantic wireless telegraph signal. Though considerably less ambitious, and despite the fact that Marconi’s project borrowed heavily from Tesla, his new device scared Tesla’s investors. The fact that Marconi required less money to put his apparatus into practice, along with the stock market crash in 1901, quickly guaranteed that no further investments would be made to the Wardenclyffe Tower. After Tesla’s death, many other scientists tried to recreate his invention but to no avail. Even though all of them studied his notes, Tesla relied heavily on his photographic memory, and his notes are notorious for being extremely vague and lacking in any real technical detail.
In the 1980s, an amateur scientist by the name of Maurice Ward came up with an invention that was said to have the ability to revolutionize space travel as we know it. He came up with an indestructible, heat-resistant plastic that could withstand 10,000 degrees Celsius. He was compelled to create it after he witnessed an airplane burst into flames. Besides the incredible heat-resistance, Starlite could also resist the impact of the force equivalent of 75 Hiroshima bombs, could endure temperatures three times the melting point of diamonds, and could be shaped in any form.
NASA was ecstatic about all the improvements Starlite could have on spaceship astronautical and security designs, but Ward was reluctant to part with the recipe, fearing that some companies would profit from his creation. Maurice never revealed the exact composition of Starlite but said that it contained “up to 21 organic polymers and copolymers, and small quantities of ceramics.” In 2011, Maurice died without parting with his secret formula. Since then scientists have tried to replicate this amazing material, but have had no luck.
1. The Sloot Digital Coding System
This is going to sound like the plot of Silicon Valley, but it’s something that actually happened, making us wonder if Mike Judge may have based his HBO series on an inventor named Jan Sloot. In the early 1990s, Sloot came up with a revolutionary data compression technique that claimed to compress a 10 GB movie down to just 8 KB without any loss of quality. A lot of people doubted the possibility of Sloot’s invention, but the technology company Philips saw the potential and arranged to sign a deal with him. The day he was due to sign, however, Sloot died of a heart attack. Nevertheless, Philips was still interested and prepared to utilize Sloot’s technology after his death, but a key floppy disk that contained the actual coding software had gone missing. After months of searching, Sloot’s disk was never found and his technology forgotten.
According to Roel Pieper, an influential Dutch IT entrepreneur who was also involved in Sloot’s project (in keeping with the Silicon Valley similarities, the fictional compression company in that show is called “Pied Piper“…coincidence?), the coding system was not so much about compression, but rather by having some background knowledge, shared by both the sender and the receiver. Pieper said of the algorithm, “It’s not about compression. Everyone is mistaken about that. The principle can be compared with a concept as Adobe-postscript, where sender and receiver know what kind of data recipes can be transferred, without the data itself actually being sent.”