Plato's Alarm Clock and other amazing ancient inventions
James M Russell
Michael O'Mara Books Limited
192pp, 29 black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £9.99

You may not have been able to have root canal work in the ancient world but you were not entirely without hope if you suffered from toothache. Evidence from 7000 BC in the Indus Valley suggests that hand-held drills were used to drain dental infections; and, in Slovenia, a jaw dating to 4500 BC indicates that beeswax was used as a filling. The Etruscans soldered human teeth or ox teeth into bridgework made of gold. Meanwhile, the renowned Babylonian law code of Hammurabi from circa 1800 BC, lists dental extractions as a form of punishment following its credo of 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'.

Freelance writer and university teacher, James M Russell, provides us with a host of fascinating facts in his highly entertaining account of inventions pioneered in the ancient world. These are neatly divided into six chapters on subjects that include everyday life, medical knowledge and scientific advances. Locks and keys, fire brigades, razors, the alphabet, hot-air balloons, cosmetic surgery, algebra, map-making and a plethora of other developments – not forgetting sex aids and lavatories – are scrutinised by Russell. If you wondered how much of our knowledge originated, this is the place to look.

While we revel in the resourcefulness of our peers, which has given us the internet and flights into space, our forebears deserve considerable credit for their ingenuity. As Russell points out, many of our modern devices had their origins in the ancient world, and many of them were invented earlier than we may think. Simple water-clocks were believed to have been used in India and China as early as 4000 BC, but Plato (427– 347 BC) created a clock with an alarm that would whistle – presumably to get both the philosopher and his students out of bed.

Russell is good at explaining in simple terms the operation of many inventions. The exact workings of some intriguing technical advances have, however, been lost to us. Damascus steel was once the hardest metal in the world but we no longer know how to make it. Some ancients enjoyed everyday conveniences which not everyone has today: the Minoans in the Palace of Knossos may have enjoyed flushing lavatories, although many people still live without them.

Being innovative, however, could prove fatal: to ensure that Roman glassmakers stayed in business, the emperor Tiberius is said to have had an inventor who developed unbreakable glass put to death. But the work of some ancient creative minds lives on – the screw perfected by that amazing polymath, Archimedes, is still used for pumping liquids. He also created the first compound pulley system and many other devices and machines that are still in use.

This delightful book, which takes its title from Plato's alarm clock, could inspire further reading on the subject. We should not forget that we stand on the shoulders of an endlessly creative throng of ancestors.

Diana Bentley

 

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