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I've read before about various technologies being lost over time, either due to war or famine or just time. I'm interested in knowing more about what sorts of things have been lost, and how.

I've read about Damascus steel before, although recently seen places that offer it - apparently the same as the original process.

Bonus points for tech we still haven't regained!

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    Welcome to History:SE. This is a very broad question - as it stands, probably too broad for this site. You might find it helpful to review our site tour and help center (particularly the section on the types of questions to avoid asking here). – sempaiscuba Jul 26 at 11:37
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    I did a Google search and found a plethora of results starting with Greek fire. Question as presented with no preliminary research may be too basic for this site. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 26 at 13:06
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    @Steve Bird: On the contrary, we might well have artifacts (from archeology), but not know exactly how they were created. For instance, stone tools. AFAIK there is no continuous tradition of stone tool use, so we don't know exactly how they were made, even though archeologists have reverse-engineered the process to make duplicates. – jamesqf Jul 26 at 15:51
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    The is nothing that the ancients did that we cannot now do better than them. Even if are unsure how they made Damascus steel or Greek fire, we can do better steel and better incendiaries. – sds Jul 26 at 20:44
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    Well we currently can't land on the moon. And we can't build a new Saturn V either. Not because we lack the plans but the institutional and operational knowledge and SLS nowhere near a moon landing. Have we "lost" that knowledge? I'd say yes. we know how to do it in theory (and we know its possible because we've done it), but we don't know how to in practice today. We'd have to re-develop such a rocket. and thats merely 50 years gap. – Polygnome Jul 27 at 22:04

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Are there any examples of technologies have been lost over time?

At least four examples spring to mind: Damascus steel, which might have been rediscovered last century, Greek fire, whose composition is still a matter of debate, Roman concrete, whose formula was lost in Western Europe after the fall of Rome and later rediscovered during the Renaissance, and the Antikythera mechanism, an ancient Greek clockwork device that was discovered early last century and only recently established to be an astronomical clock.

There's also the stuff of legends, whose accounts attract the skepticism of modern scholars (like burning glass) or of contemporaries (like the circumnavigation of Africa by Phoenicians).

If you feel like sitting through an hour and a half long video, this example of traditional African iron smelting was nearly lost -- it would have been had it not been for a desire to preserve it. The video will walk you through the whole thing: creating the charcoal, creating the furnace, and then operating it.

The latter video is, I think, interesting in that it hints at how much technical knowledge may have been lost over time without us necessarily realizing -- at times while leaving a trace that can later be rediscovered, and at times not. Iron smelting technology is alive and well, but had it not been for conservation efforts, the above video would never have been created, and how Africans smelted iron in that area would have been lost to time unless later researchers would have succeeded at recreating it through detective work.

In this sense, obsolete technology is comparable to a dying language. At one point there are only a few people left who know it. And then comes a day when the last person who knows it passes away. But their reason for existing stays with us in some form or shape and they simply get replaced.

As a last illustration of the above, consider the (actually Celtic) Roman saddle, which all but disappeared after the introduction of the stirrup:

Roman saddle

How they worked was reconstructed last century by Peter Connolly.

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    Interesting stuff! I'll definitely give that video a watch! – millerbr Jul 26 at 13:01
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Perhaps one of the most famous examples is the Antikythera mechanism. Discovered in 1901, it is believed to date between 205 BC and 60 BC. This ancient analog computer contains

traces of technology that appear utterly modern: gears with neat triangular teeth (just like the inside of a clock) and a ring divided into degrees (like the protractor you used in school). Nothing else like this has ever been discovered from antiquity. Nothing as sophisticated, or even close, appears again for more than a thousand years.

enter image description here

Source: Smithsonian.com

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How the Ancient Egyptians built the Pyramids is the first thing which comes to mind. Despite some current discoveries along this area there simply is nothing definitive here. I'd say we have more evidence of how they were NOT built (by slaves, long earthen ramps, levitation chants, etc.) than how they were.

Something to ponder...we are closer in time to the death of Cleopatra than she was to the building of the Great Pyramid.

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    Why I don't want to dismiss the great effort invested in the building of the pyramids, they were more of a wonder of organization, not of technology. The shape of the pyramids is actually the shape which is the easiest to build (from an engineering perspective). Just put layers upon layers upon layers. When you finished one layer, you can build the next one on top of it. Compare it with Gothic cathedrals, which are just as high, but are hollow inside, so they needed a lot of engineering for their parts to support each other, and frameworks to hold it together before it got finished. – vsz Jul 28 at 10:42
  • @vsz - How were the blocks moved? put in place? measurements made? alignment of structures/features calculated? These are all examples of technology not logistics/organization. – Matt Balent Jul 29 at 11:30
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Polynesian Navigation

The ancient Polynesians were master navigators. Believed to have originated in Formosa they spread as far as Madagascar, New Zealand and Hawaii.

Map of polynesian migration

They used a combination of specialized canoes, navigation devices and close observation of natural phenomenon (waves, stars, birds etc).

Knowledge of the traditional Polynesian methods of navigation was widely lost after contact with and colonization by Europeans.

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    If we're counting techniques that were lost due to becoming obsolete, the list could go into the thousands. – T.E.D. Jul 26 at 20:41
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    Has Polynesian navigation been lost? I saw a documentary in the 80's where Polynesians explained how it worked. – axsvl77 Jul 27 at 12:34
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    @CMonsour: no cathedrals are not obsolete as they have a function today. How an ancient crowd of people managed to, say, sail, is historically interesting but their know-how would be quickly made obsolete by better techniques, first by compass, and ultimately GPS. It is not that they had an extraordinary idea which got lost. Just better took over. – WoJ Jul 27 at 13:22
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    @CMonsour Nothing was stopping them from building it using contemporary building techniques, as cathedrals have been built for centuries. A cathedral is simply a church that is also the seat of a bishop, regardless of how it was constructed. (Which means that Washington basilica isn't actually a cathedral.) – Ross Ridge Jul 28 at 6:43
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    @axsvl77 As usual, with cultural tech, technologies like these aren't monoliths that we either Have or Do Not Have. In general, each Polynesian society had their own variations on methods of navigation, many of which were lost, but a few of which survive. – Aza Jul 29 at 3:55
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Vulcanized rubber is an example. The Mesoamericans had vulcanized rubber by mixing the juice from morning glory (which grew by rubber trees and contains sulfur) with the latex from rubber trees to make rubber balls.

The arrivals of the Europeans saw the loss of this technology for some time.

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One very familiar example is the Greek Dark Age, when they not only lost much of their architectural technology but also lost the art of writing for 200-300 years.

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Even in something as basic as wood, it is clear we have lost a lot of technology.

Oetzi, found in a melting glacier in the Italian Alps in 1991, can give us a glimpse of what has been lost since his lifetime, around 3200 BC.

The equipment he carried included a copper axe and a flint knife or dagger, showing he lived in an era when both were current.

But the variety of woodwork he carried is quite astonishing - tools or components made from

  • yew (axe handle and bow)
  • birch (bark for lightweight containers, tar for adhesive, fungus (possibly antibiotic)
  • hazel (backpack frame, reinforcing in quiver )
  • viburnum and cherry (arrows)
  • ash (dagger handle)
  • lime (tool handle for retoucher - flint sharpener) and bast (bark fibre for thread and string)

Probably as many varieties of wood products as I carry plastic products around today.

Some of this technology survives - according to the page, birch bark containers are still made locally - but it appears there was a breadth of knowledge about selecting, working and using wood that has fallen out of currency (mainly due to the availability of better materials)

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    I think that rather depends on who you're calling "we". Any good woodworker would know most of that, adapting to what's available locally. Admittedly it's a specialized occupation and/or hobby, not mainstream industry. – jamesqf Jul 27 at 17:22
  • @jamesqf - sure, I accept that some (maybe even most) survives; I mentioned one example in local crafts. But the entirety of it? Unlikely. Were it possible, I would love to sit in on a conversation between Oetzi and modern craftspeople - I expect it would turn up a few surprises. – Brian Drummond Jul 28 at 11:59
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This article describes the loss of technologies in ancient island societies that became isolated from the outside world. In particular, the ancient Tasmanians had bone tools, including tool for sewing, and advanced stone tools; when Europeans made contact with them in the 18th century, they had lost these things, which would still have been valuable to them (they went naked in all seasons, even in parts of Tasmania where it snows in winter). Also, although they had fire, they didn't know how to start fire-- they carried embers wrapped in leaves when they traveled, and if a group's fire went out, they had to make do without it until they met another group that could give them a light.

It appears that when a society is isolated, with a small total population, low population density and no written language, and the speed of communication is human walking speed, ideas can be forgotten faster than they are reinvented.

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The Chinese had a period of extensive invention in manufacturing and automation, particularly during the Song dynasty. They had seismographs, odometers, large blast furnaces, drilled for natural gas and even delivered it via bamboo pipes for cooking. All of this was lost after about 1200.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TzLejrJ6I8

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The Saturn V rocket technology has been partially lost. No rockets capable of lifting that much mass currently exist, and some of the manufacturing techniques used for the Saturn V are unknown as documentation was lost, so they could not be built today without modification.

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    Very good answer; would be improved with the addition of citations/sources – Mark C. Wallace Jul 29 at 10:37
  • No rockets currently exist capable of lifting that much mass for the same reason we no longer make station wagons with three rows of seats. It isn't needed for current use cases; it's not a matter of not being able to manufacture comparable rockets. Two Falcon Heavy launches can put about as much mass in orbit as a Saturn V launch at a very small fraction of the price thanks to much BETTER technology. newatlas.com/falcon-heavy-saturn-v/53090 – C Monsour Aug 7 at 0:42
  • @CMonsour missing the point there, which is that if for some reason we did want to build a new Saturn V we couldn't with what we have available now. – user Aug 7 at 10:05
  • I think you're missing the point, on the wrong end of a type/token distinction: A technology isn't the same thing as a specific design. Saying that we've lost rocket technology because we can't build a new Saturn V just like the old one is like saying we've forgotten how to read because we can't translate Etruscan. – C Monsour Aug 7 at 11:27
  • @CMonsour I'm not saying we lost rocket technology, I'm saying we lost some of the specific technologies used in the Saturn V. They may have been superseded, but those specific ones are not documented or manufacturable today. – user Aug 7 at 11:43

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