We’ve lost the secret to making some of history’s most useful inventions, and for all of our ingenuity and discoveries, our ancestors of thousands of years ago are still able to baffle us with their ingenuity and discoveries. We have developed the modern equivalent of some of these inventions, but only very recently.
Greek Fire: Mysterious Chemical Weapon
Image from an illuminated manuscript, the Madrid Skylitzes, showing Greek Fire in use against the fleet of the rebel Thomas the Slav. The caption above the left ship reads, “the fleet of the Romans setting ablaze the fleet of the enemies.” (Wikimedia Commons)
The Byzantines of the 7th to 12th centuries hurled a mysterious substance at their enemies in naval battle. This liquid, shot through tubes or siphons, burned in water and could only be extinguished with vinegar, sand, and urine. We still don’t know what this chemical weapon, known as Greek Fire, was made of. The Byzantines guarded the secret jealously, ensuring only a select few knew the secret, and the knowledge was eventually lost altogether.
Flexible Glass: A Substance Too Precious
Three ancient accounts of a substance known as vitrum flexile, flexible glass, are not clear enough to determine that this substance actually existed. The story of its invention was first told by Petronius (d. 63 A.D.).
He wrote about a glassmaker who presented the Emperor Tiberius (who reigned 14–37 A.D.) with a glass vessel. He asked the emperor to hand it back to him, at which point, the glassmaker threw it to the floor. It didn’t break; it only dented, and the glassmaker hammered it quickly back into shape. Fearing the devaluation of precious metals, Tiberius ordered the inventor beheaded so the secret of vitrum flexile would die with him.
An Antidote to All Poisons
A so-called “universal antidote” against all poisons was said to have been developed by King Mithridates VI of Pontus (who reigned 120–63 B.C.) and perfected by Emperor Nero’s personal physician. The original formula was lost, explained Adrienne Mayor, a folklorist and historian of science at Stanford University, in a 2008 paper, titled “Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World.” But ancient historians told us that among its ingredients were opium, chopped vipers, and a combination of small doses of poisons and their antidotes.
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