Wednesday, May 20, 2015

There’s always an idea that changes many things often as much as history itself. A bold new idea, new inventions, unexpected discoveries – seemingly independent from each other however in the end a cause and causality becomes apparent. And this is in essence technical development. It may be surprising but this is still ongoing. Who knows how many inventors are dreaming, thinking, trying to create something new and bold? How will history continue?


How are volcanoes and greek fire connected?

In ancient civilizations these were the ways of solving the age-old problem of fixing building blocks to each other.

The Babylonians used tar, Egyptians used plaster but the best method was invented by the Romans. About the 3rd century BC locals around Naples started using volcanic ash which is called pozzolanic ash. They realised that pozzolana and hydrated lime creates a very strong binding material. This material is cement. This was a significant invention since it bears greater weight than just putting other building blocks onto each other. Due to the invention of cement Roman architecture went through rapid development because from now on they started building upwards in Rome. Roman architects raised impressive arches, vaulted ceilings and grandiose domes. They created multi-levelled structures like the Colosseum.

Cement became the foundation of an everlasting city. But besides its durability Roman cement had another interesting property that could solve another problem of the city, a problem as old as the hills it was built upon.

How to supply fresh water to the population?

The primary source for fresh water for Rome was the River Tiberius. However due to the continuously growing population and the more and more sewage pouring into the river Roman water had become increasingly unhealthy. It became the source of such epidemics as cholera, typhus or dysentery. The saviour of Rome was cement once again.

In Rome you can still view the tunnels that were used for water drainage. By using cement the Romans realised that by discovering cement they found a binding material that is water proof and makes creating aqueducts possible and not just underground but by creating a network of arches supplying the surrounding areas.


Thanks to aqueducts the citizens of Rome could enjoy running water, flush toilets, public baths and fountains. Simultaneously epidemics have disappeared almost completely and water shortages were but a fading memory. Aqueducts made it possible for cities to become even larger. However so many people living so closely has created new, serious problems.

In ancient Rome almost every night a fire broke out somewhere in the city. The fire spread quickly between the large buildings. Around 70 BC an entrepreneur Marcus Licinius Crassus became the wealthiest man in Rome by purchasing real estates from their owners while they were on fire. He then extinguished the fire whit his fire fighting slaves and this way it became possible to reuse the real estates. The investor, Marcus Licinius Crassus has became famous when he defeated the slave revolts led by Spartacus in 71 BC.

Fire fighting soon became a profession. In 6 BC Caesar Augustus inaugurated Rome’s first official fire department. Compared to their current fellow fire fighters they did not have mechanical water sprays and high pressured cutting tensions. However they did have ample amount of water thanks to the aqueducts. The only question was how to bring the water to the fire.

One method was the traditional bucket chain. This method however was not too efficient since more water spilled on the ground than on the fire. They required a better solution to quench the fire. That’s when they invented the so-called siphos which interestingly laid the ground for the renaissance era. This was a double-acting pump that when one of the two pistons rose it sucks in water and when you pulled it down it extruded the water. The two pistons together created a steady water flow.

The double-action pump could transport the water to greater distances than buckets. Similar as their modern counter parts ancient fire fighters connected their pump to a nearby water source which were supplied by cement bounded aqueducts. This mechanical knowledge paired with their organizational skills made it possible for the Romans to extend their empire beyond Europe and North Africa to Asia thus creating the Byzantine Empire. 

In today’s Istanbul, Turkey (formerly Constantinople) developing this pump further created a deadly weapon (which today is known as Greek fire). Constantinople was considered the world’s strategically most important city for centuries. Whoever controlled this sea trade route, the Bosporus strait controlled the trade between Asia and Europe. Also they could control ship traffic between the Black and Mediterranean seas. Literally this was the most important hub of traffic in the world.

By the 6th century Constantinople has become the largest and richest city in the western world. The capital of the Byzantine Empire. Its success also made Constantinople a target. In 674 the city was under siege by the Saracens both on land and by sea. While the walls of Constantinople made the city invulnerable against a direct attack they could not help with starvation. To defeat the Saracen blockade the Byzantines deployed a new technology. They used a destructive liquid that has become legend. This was Greek fire! The most feared weapon of the era, no more powerful weapon existed. We could call the A-bomb of this era. A whole country could be defended with it. The inventors of Constantinople developed a new chemical formula that contained the following: crude oil, rosin and a mixture of animal fat. If the proportion is accurate then we receive a flammable liquid that burns on water. This is what was invented by the chemists of Constantinople.

So, we have the liquid but it was necessary to deliver this flammable liquid to great distances. The Byzantines realised that by using the Roman siphos with some small improvements they created the first flamethrower of the world by combining the Roman siphos with their new invention.

Let’s where we are now. We started with a water-proof binding material which the Romans used to build aqueducts. The water was used to quench fires with pumps. These pumps with Greek fire played a role in defending Constantinople.

Author: Béla Molnár

Tags: idea, invention, discoveries, technical development

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