Five Surprising Pre-Modern Inventions

ABSTRACT: While pre-modern societies were obviously not as technologically advanced as current ones, their citizens still managed to invent some amazing devices and systems. Here are five of them.

Three batteries (1)
What comes to mind when you think about pre-modern societies? Many of us probably conjure up images of peasants or shopkeepers-working with primitive equipment and tools. We might want to reconsider some of our beliefs about these cultures. While pre-modern societies were obviously not as technologically advanced as current ones, their citizens still managed to invent some amazing devices and systems.

Here are five surprising pre-modern inventions.

Vulcanized Rubber

Growing up, many of us learned that an American, Charles Goodyear, was the first person to devise a method for improving the strength and elasticity of rubber by heating it. He made the discovery in 1839. The process is called vulcanization (after the Roman god of fire). A number of important items, including tires, currently utilize the substance.

Surprisingly, recent archaeological research indicates that the Mayans, and not Goodyear, should get the credit for inventing vulcanized rubber. Even more astounding, the Mayans might have first developed the process more than 3600 years ago.


In today's world, many of us would probably not be able to function without access to batteries. We use them to power everything from toys to smartphones. Historians often credit an Italian, Alessandro Volta, with inventing the first battery around 1800.

However, archaeologists digging near Baghdad, Iraq in 1938 found objects that appear to be batteries. If this is true, people living in that region should be credited with inventing the battery sometime between 250 B.C. and 640 A.D.


A watch is a complex device, containing numerous tiny springs, coils, and wheels. You might think that watches would be too complex for pre-modern clockmakers to master. That proved not to be the case. An Italian (and not a German as some suppose) developed the first watch, or portable clock, sometime in the late 1400s or early 1500s. The timekeeping devices proved to be a hit with Europe's wealthy citizens, who could choose from a variety of watch styles by 1600. These early watches did not keep good time; nonetheless, they still represented a major technological achievement.


Many of us use eyeglasses to correct for vision problems. The importance of this piece of equipment cannot be overstated. A number of experts consider the development of eyeglasses to be one of the most important inventions of the last two millennia. Without glasses, many people would not be able to see well enough to perform basic tasks, like reading and driving. Those of us who are nearsighted or farsighted should thank Italians for inventing eyeglasses-in the latter part of the 13th century.

Urban Sanitation Systems

A large city needs to possess a well-developed urban sanitation system in order to limit the potential for outbreaks of infectious disease. However, until recently most cities in Europe and the United States did a poor job of disposing of waste, which resulted in the deaths (from infectious disease) of untold numbers of people. For instance, New York did not begin to install a comprehensive urban sanitation system until the 1860s.

The people living in Europe and the United States were latecomers when it came to developing sophisticated sanitation systems. Urban dwellers living in the Indus Valley, which covers portions of modern-day Pakistan and India, beat them to it by several millennia.

1. Author: Dmitry G
    Date: February 24, 2010
    Title/Description: 3x AAA batteries.
    Location/Permission: Wikimedia Commons - Author's notes
    (please see linked titled for photo, credits, permissions)

The author is a freelance writer and has a B.A. in History from Roanoke College.

#ancienthistory #history #inventions #technology #Europe #watches #eyeglasses #glasses #batteries

-- Anthony Hopper

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