Ancient Asian Inventions

Kites, Silk, Glass, and More

A toddler plays with a kite in a park in Xian, China

Tim Graham / Getty Images

Asian inventions shaped our history in many significant ways. Once the most basic inventions had been created in prehistoric times—food, transport, clothing, and alcohol—humanity was free to create more luxurious goods. In ancient times, Asian inventors came up with such fripperies as silk, soap, glass, ink, parasols, and kites. Some inventions of a more serious nature also appeared at this time, like writing, irrigation, and map-making.

Silk: BCE 3200 in China

Raw silk in a factory in Siem Reap, Cambodia

sweet_redbird / Flickr /?CC BY-SA 2.0

Chinese legends say that Empress Lei Tsu first discovered silk ca. BCE 4000 when a silkworm cocoon fell into her hot tea. As the empress fished the cocoon out of her teacup, she found that it was unraveling into long, smooth filaments. Rather than flinging the sodden mess away, she decided to spin the fibers into thread. This may be nothing more than a legend, but by BCE 3200, Chinese farmers were cultivating silkworms and the mulberry trees to feed them.

Written Language: BCE 3000 in Sumer

Cuneiform, one of the first forms of writing, covers a stone tablet

Wendy / Flickr /?CC BY-NC 2.0

Creative minds all around the world have tackled the problem of capturing the stream of sounds in speech and rendering it in written form. The diverse people in regions of Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica found different solutions to the intriguing riddle. Perhaps the first to write things down were the Sumerians living in ancient Iraq, who invented a syllable-based system ca. BCE 3000. Much like modern Chinese writing, each character in Sumerian represented a syllable or idea which combined with others to form entire words.

Glass: BCE 3000 in Phoenicia

The Chihuly bridge in Tahoma, Washington, is made of glass invented in the Middle East

Amy?the Nurse?/ Flickr /?CC BY-ND 2.0

The Roman historian Pliny said the Phoenicians discovered glass-making ca. BCE 3000 when sailors lit a fire on a sandy beach on the Syrian coast. They had no stones to rest their cookpots on, so they used blocks of potassium nitrate (saltpeter) as supports, instead. When they woke the next day, the fire had fused silicon from the sand with soda from the saltpeter to form glass. The Phoenicians likely recognized the substance produced by their cookfires because naturally occurring glass is found where lightning strikes sand and in volcanic obsidian. The earliest surviving glass vessel from Egypt dates to about BCE 1450.

Soap: BCE 2800 in Babylon

Artisanal, flavory soaps are descended from those invented in Asia nearly 5,000 years ago

George Brett / Flickr /?CC BY-NC-SA 2.0?

Around BCE 2800 (in modern-day Iraq), Babylonians discovered that they could create an effective cleanser by mixing animal fat with wood ashes. Boiled together in clay cylinders, they produced the world's first known bars of soap.

Ink: BCE 2500 in China

Feathered quills in pots of ink, which was invented ca. BCE 2500 in China and Egypt

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Before the invention of ink, people etched words and symbols into stones or pressed carved stamps into clay tablets to write. It was a time-consuming task that produced unwieldy or fragile documents. Enter ink, a handy combination of fine soot and glue that seems to have been invented in China and Egypt almost simultaneously ca. BCE 2500. Scribes could simply brush words and pictures onto surfaces of cured animal skins, papyrus, or eventually paper, for light-weight, portable, and relatively durable documents.

Parasol: BCE 2400 in Mesopotamia

A traditional red Japanese parasol with intricate wooden supports keeps sun from delicate skin, and has evolved over 4,400 years

?Yuki Yaginuma?/?Flickr /?CC BY-ND 2.0

The first record of using a parasol comes from a Mesopotamian carving dating to BCE 2400. Cloth stretched over a wooden frame, the parasol was used at first only to protect nobility from the blazing desert sun. It was such a good idea that soon, according to ancient works of art, parasol-wielding servants were shading the nobles in sunny places from Rome to India.

Irrigation Canals: BCE 2400 in Sumer and China

Irrigated fields of wheat in Mexico use techniques from thousands of years ago in Asia

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Rain can be an unreliable water source for crops. To solve this problem, farmers from Sumer and China began digging irrigation canal systems ca. BCE 2400. A series of ditches and gates directed river water onto fields where thirsty crops waited. Unfortunately for the Sumerians, their land had once been a sea bed. Frequent irrigation drove ancient salts to the surface, salinating the land and ruining it for agriculture. The once-Fertile Crescent became unable to support crops by BCE 1700, and Sumerian culture collapsed. Nonetheless, versions of irrigation canals remained in use through time as aqueducts, plumbing, dams, and sprinkler systems.

Cartography: BCE 2300 in Mesopotamia

An ancient map of Asia by Flemish cartographer Jodocus Hondius

臺灣水鳥研究群 彰化海岸保育行動聯盟 / Flickr /?CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The earliest known map was created during the reign of Sargon of Akkad, who ruled in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) ca. BCE 2300. The map depicts northern Iraq. Although map-reading is second nature to most of us today, it was quite an intellectual leap to conceive of drawing vast areas of land at a smaller scale from a bird's eye view.

Oars: BCE 1500 in Phoenicia

Paddlers on simple rowboats in Vietnam traverse the Red River Delta

LuffyKun / Getty Images

It's no surprise that seafaring Phoenicians invented oars. Egyptians paddled up and down the Nile as early as 5000 years ago, and Phoenician sailors took their idea, added leverage by fixing a fulcrum (the oarlock) to the side of the boat, and slid the oar into it. When sailboats were the foremost watercraft of the day, people rowed out to their ships in smaller boats propelled by oars. Until the invention of steamboats and motorboats, oars remained very important in commercial and military sailing. Today, however, oars are used mainly in recreational boating

Kite: BCE 1000 in China

An intricate kite in the shape of a dragon

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One Chinese legend says that a farmer tied a string to his straw hat to keep it on his head during a windstorm, and thus the kite was born. Whatever the actual origin, Chinese people have been flying kites for thousands of years. Early kites were likely made of silk stretched over bamboo frames, though some may have been made of large leaves or animal hides. Of course, kites are fun toys, but some instead carried military messages, or were fitted with hooks and bait for fishing.