We humans are a species ever focused on advancing our knowledge, of inexorably moving past perceived boundaries to find new ways to break past our confines into fascinating future realms of discovery. This has done much to progress our kind, and the tireless pursuit of our great thinkers and scientists has allowed us to achieve great leaps and bounds throughout the ages. However, as much as we advance there are those discoveries that have been lost to us for whatever reasons that serve to remind us of what could have been. Here we have astounding, sometimes seemingly improbable breakthroughs that smash through our current understanding of our world, but which have slipped into the forgotten nooks and crannies of time.
Some of the more mysterious and impressive of lost inventions are those from the ancient world, many of which were well ahead of their times and some which are thoroughly steeped in shadowy myth and lore. Perhaps the most well-known of these was a destructive weapon developed in the Byzantine Empire in the 7th century, and popularly known as “Greek Fire.” The material was more or less a volatile concoction that was sprayed from a type of cannon and which could supposedly ignite anything, continuing to burn without sputtering out and to destroy even upon water. This vast ability to annihilate the enemy in Naval battles made Greek Fire one of the most feared weapons of the time, and its manufacture one of the most jealously guarded military secrets of the Byzantine Empire.
Greek Fire seems to have first mentioned by the historian Theophanes, who described its origins. It was written that the Emperor at the time, Konstantinos IV, had been desperately looking for some sort of secret weapon to use in the face of invaders from the Middle East, and it was then that he was approached by a Syrian refugee and chemist named Kallinikos. The Emperor took him in, and in return Kallinikos supposedly taught him the secrets of making Greek Fire, which was then used to horrific effect and resounding success in a naval battle against Arab forces under the command of Khalif of Syria in 678 AD. The Greek Fire reportedly absolutely obliterated the enemy, who could find no effective way to put the ravenous flames out, saving the city of Constantinople in the process. According to the enemy, the only things that showed any promise at all of remotely stopping the fires were vinegar, sand, or urine, which could not be provided in the amounts needed to stop the onslaught. The secret weapon would then be effectively used for centuries against all who would defy them.
While this particular origin story may be mythical, at least in parts, it is widely believed that Greek Fire was indeed a real thing, and that it was likely developed and perfected over many years by various chemists working in unison. Not surprisingly, considering it was seen as such a decisively devastating weapon in Naval battles, many other powers wished to gain the secrets to its formula for themselves, but the exact recipe was so intensely guarded that only a very few were said to have even known how to make it. In addition to the actual recipe for Greek Fire, there was a certain set of steps required to make it work, and even when Bulgar nomads managed to capture a sizable batch of the stuff in 814, they were apparently unable to discern how to turn it into the fearsome weapon they knew it to be. Even when a purportedly leaked recipe for Greek Fire was released in the book Book of Fires for the Burning of Enemies, no one who read it could actually make it work, and it seems there were many parts that had to come together just right, including the siphon delivery systems, for the material to be properly unleashed in all of its blazing, ravenous glory.
In this sense, the secret of Greek Fire and its utilization were kept safe from the world for centuries, and was never once successfully stolen by the enemy. However, this obsessive secrecy had a drawback in that it meant that the few who actually knew the secrets were unwilling to share them, and when they died the secrets died with them. This turns out to be exactly what happened, and the ingredients, handling, and methods needed to create Greek Fire have been thoroughly and forever lost to the sands of time, although there are some guesses and there have been numerous attempts to recreate it. It is thought that it used some sort of resin mixed with crude oil and other chemicals, and that it was likely a liquid, but that is about all we know. Although mankind in its infinite innovation for destruction has created serviceable replacements, such as napalm, the secret of the original Greek Fire remains an incomprehensible mystery.
Just as destructive and every bit as cloaked in mystery is an invention supposedly developed in the 3rd century BC by the ancient Greek engineer and mathematician Archimedes, of the city-state of Syracuse, then a part of ancient Greece. Among his many accomplishments during his life, such as the calculation of pi, Archimedes was also known to dabble in creating various machines of war for use against the Romans, such as catapults and even a massive metal claw that could be used to pick up and sink ships, and he once boasted, “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I will move the world.”
Among these colorful and elaborate weapons was something he came up with that has gone on to be rather aptly called “The Archimedes Death Ray.” It supposedly consisted of a series of enormous mirrors that were arranged in such a precise way as to catch and focus sunlight to such a ferocious intensity that it could spontaneously ignite and burn Roman ships off the coast up to 1,000 feet away. According to the ancient historian Galen, the death ray was used to great effect during the Roman siege of Syracuse, destroying many enemy ships with its blazing, unstoppable rays. However, over the centuries all other records of the weapon and any hint of how it was built have been lost.
In recent times there have been various efforts to try and recreate the “Archimedes Death Ray.” The most famous example was two episodes of the television show Mythbusters, but they couldn’t figure out how to make it work. Then a group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) managed to set alight a replica Roman ship measuring 10 feet long, but the whole process took a total of 10 minutes, and this plus other factors make this is all a questionable result at best. The model ship was motionless at the time, with no accounting for the motion of the waves that would be expected, and furthermore, the time from ignition to fire was 10 minutes, which seems a bit long to be of any practical value in a high stakes battle in the middle of chaos. There is also the fact that Archimedes’ Death Ray never caught on as a popular or widely used weapon, and was only mentioned a handful of times. As Archimedes biographer Sherman K. Stein writes:
Had the mirrors done their work, they would have become a standard weapon; yet there is no sign that they were added to the armaments of the time.
Nevertheless, the lost invention has remained the focus of many a discussion, and is speculated and debated upon to this day. Another infamous weapon of war from ancient times is a material known as Damascus steel, which originated in the Middle East and was used to fashion swords and other blades for millennia. Named after the famed city of Syria, weapons made with this mysterious breed of steel were known for the distinctive patterns within the steel itself. Damascus blades were long considered to be legendary, with many abilities and characteristics attributed to them. They were said to hold their edge exceptionally well, were considered to be almost supernaturally sharp, able to cut clean through other lesser swords without losing sharpness, and were also renowned for their incredible durability and toughness, which were said to be far beyond that of a normal blade. Some legends say that they were literally unbreakable, and that they could cleanly slice in half a human hair falling upon them.
Due to these purported remarkable properties, it is understandable that Damascus steel weapons were highly prized and sought after, but towards around the 17th century their production dropped off until they apparently went extinct, with the secrets of their production and manufacture lost for the very same reasons that those of Greek Fire were also lost. There were just a few master sword smiths who knew the exact balance of ores and the technique for making them, and this was always a carefully guarded secret that very often went with them to the grave. Indeed, we still have no idea how the steel and its blades were created, and the swords and knives available today which are labelled as “Damascus Steel,” are merely approximations of what they may have been like.
It is thought that the secret to the amazing qualities of these weapons lies in the unique raw materials that were used, and that these ores may have simply been depleted and used up over time, making it now impossible to fashion one even if one knew how. Many of the unique properties of the steel are also attributed to the manufacturing process and the impurities in the blades that it produced, with elements such as tungsten or vanadium likely present, and there are even theories that the steel was imbued with naturally occurring nanowires and carbon nanotubes, which would account for its legendary toughness and resilience. Whatever the case may be, the secret to the correct combination of materials and forging techniques needed to produce a Damascus steel weapon have been lost to the ages.
Not every mysterious lost invention is related to destruction and warfare, and indeed another legendary example is a material from the reign of Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar, that was referred to as Vitrum Flexile, or "flexible glass." This was supposedly a type of extraordinary glass that would not break or shatter, but rather bend, and which could be hammered back together to repair any cracks or dents. It was said to have been invented by a craftsman by the name of Isadore of Seville, and according to an early account by Petronius, the mysterious craftsman one day presented a bowl made of the material to the Emperor, who had then thrown it to the floor. However, instead of shattering into pieces as would be expected, the miracle material simply bent inward, and could be easily repaired by simply hammering the dent out, resulting in the bowl being as good as new, with no hint at all of having received any damage.
According to the tale, the inventor told the Emperor that he was the only one who knew the secret of how to make the flexible glass, after which he was beheaded in order to keep the invention under wraps and to prevent undermining the value of gold and silver. The story would later be retold by Pliny the Younger and then Cassius Dio, who speculated that the inventor had perhaps been a powerful alchemist or magician. It is unknown if this was ever a real material or not, but there are currently efforts to develop something very much like it in the modern world, so perhaps this was just an innovation that was well ahead of its time. Neither the mystery of Vitrum Flexile nor its method of manufacture have been explained.
Yet another invention from Roman times that has been lost to us is that of the so-called “Roman Concrete.” The Romans put to use a peculiar blend of concrete that allowed them to build some of their most astounding architectural creations. Roman concrete was extremely resistant to the effects of seawater, wind, weather, and cracking, and indeed outshines even the most advanced concrete mixtures today. It is precisely the reason why so many iconic Roman structures still stand in relatively good condition even thousands of years later. The thing is, this formula has been lost to the tides of time and no one really knows how they made it, other than that they likely used volcanic ash. Other than this, how they managed to create such structures to withstand the sea and the elements for so long remains unknown, and efforts to reproduce it based on the few remaining written records have proved unsuccessful.
Another beneficial Roman invention that we have lost is a concoction known as Mithridatium, named after the king Mithridates VI of Pontus, also known as Mithradates VI Eupator Dionysus and Mithridates the Great, who supposedly discovered it. A notorious emperor known for indiscriminate killing, Mithridates racked up quite a rogue’s gallery of enemies during his tenure as ruler, and as such became absolutely obsessed with the idea that he would be poisoned. Indeed his own father had been killed in such a way, and he was convinced that he was at the heart of an assassination conspiracy. To this effect, he supposedly began to work in unison with his court physician, Crateuas, to craft an almighty elixir that would render any poison worthless.
The two supposedly went about testing and perfecting a wide range range of toxins, venomous, medications, and concoctions, which they tested on prisoners in the hopes of finding a universal antidote to all poisons. He was apparently successful, because it is written by such well-known intellectuals of the day as Pliny the Elder that he managed to develop a daily supplement to take that would purportedly protect him from all forms of poisons, and which was said to be composed of 54 different ingredients mixed and matched in precise quantities.
The result was that Mithridates was purportedly able to ingest any toxin known to man without suffering any ill effects, and it was apparently so effective that Mithridates would perform public exhibitions in which he would willingly be subjected to all manner of lethal toxins without any ill effect whatsoever. Indeed the antidote was so effective that it apparently thwarted his attempt to kill himself with poison in 63 BC, forcing him to take his own life by sword. He had, for all intents, crated a universal, cure-all antidote for any known poison. The drug, which would be known as Mithridatium, was apparently highly sought after during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but the secret would die with him. In later years, a supposed handwritten recipe for the concoction was found in a cabinet at his home, but no one was able to make it work, and various efforts to try and recreate it have failed. The secret to this universal cure-all for poison, or even whether it ever really existed at all or was a sham, have been lost to time, although there were skeptics even in ancient times, with Pliny saying of Mithridates:
The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients, no two of them having the same weight, while of some is prescribed one sixtieth part of one denarius. Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? No human brain could have been sharp enough. It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.
Moving on into more modern times, we have still more mysterious supposed inventions that could have had world changing implications. In the 1970s, a man named Thomas Ogle claimed to have developed a new type of car carburetor that supposedly could make gasoline into a pressurized vapor and utilize it on the engine’s firing chambers in an incredibly super efficient manner, allowing vehicles to allegedly run over 100 miles to the gallon. In addition, Ogle claimed that any car could be modified to use the new system easily and for not much additional cost, making the whole thing seem almost too good to be true. Ogle himself showed off a Ford Galaxie that had supposedly been fitted with the new miracle carburetor and was clocked at around 113 miles to the gallon.
Unfortunately we will never know. Ogle died in 1981 without ever having divulged just how the vapor carburetor worked, and even his death has sparked controversy, with some saying he was intentionally poisoned by someone within the big gasoline companies who stood to lose the most from such an innovative product. Considering that no one has ever been able to replicate the process, it has been speculated that the whole thing could have been a hoax, with Ogle simply showing an illusion utilizing hidden fuel tanks, but other have defended his invention as having been real, and in the end the fact is we simply don’t know. All we know is that it would have been a revolutionary development way ahead of its time.
Also in the 1970s was the development of a material that was claimed to be the most incredible heat shield humanity has ever devised or even imagined. The material was called Starlite, and was supposedly created by an amateur chemist and producer of hair products named Maurice Ward, who created it in his garage by accident using common and easily accessible ingredients. After many iterations of the material he claimed that it could be simply sprayed onto any object and make it virtually impervious to heat. To demonstrate it Ward would spray it on his hand and run a flame over it to ill effect, coat eggs with it and put them under an assault by blowtorch only to show that the insides were still raw and the shell cool to the touch, and even subject the material to a concentrated laser beam running at around a diamond melting 10,000°C without showing any stress. When subjected to a test simulating a nuclear blast a Starlite coated slab only showed a small scorch mark, and many of these tests were done under scientific conditions or even televised on national TV.
Hailed as a wonder material, Starlite is mostly considered to have been very real, and Ward was in talks to have it mass produced by many high level companies and even NASA, but could never agree to the terms or reach a deal, all negotiations falling through in the end mostly due to Ward’s own greed and insistence on keeping 51% of any proceeds from his invention. Before he was able to ever find an agreement he was comfortable with, Ward died in 2011 and took his jealously protected secret with him to the grave. Ward had in the past claimed that some of his closest family knew the secret to Starlight’s creation, which was allegedly disarmingly easy, but no one has come forward to conclusively show that this is the case. This potentially groundbreaking invention will probably be forever lost to us, and if you want to read about it more in detail you can check out an article I wrote on it here at MU some time ago.
In the 1990s there was another supposed invention brought forward relating to computers, when a Dutch man named Jan Sloot claimed that he had discovered a revolutionary new digital coding system that enabled immense amounts of data to be compressed into a very tiny amount of storage space. The kind of compression rates he was talking about were far beyond anything available at the time, and indeed beyond what we have available today, able to supposedly smash down an entire movie into just 8KB of space. He also claimed that he could play up to 16 movies at the same time running on just a 64KB chip and without first copying it to the computer’s hard drive.
It was all so amazing that Sloot had people definitely interested in investing in the technology, but nothing ever went through because Sloot would end up dead, apparently the day before he was to give up the secret to it all. No one really knew how it all worked except Sloot himself, and additionally there was supposedly a floppy disc holding the compiler that could not be located. It the intervening years the supposed remarkable invention has been picked apart and speculated upon, with some saying that it would be impossible based on current file compression knowledge, and others saying that Sloot had merely found an ingenious way to get around the physical limitations.
The most controversial of all of these is perhaps a claim in 1989 that a team of scientists had achieved a theoretical process through which nuclear reactions could be obtained at room temperature for the purpose of producing energy, usually called “cold fusion.” In theory it should be impossible, as fusion typically occurs under immense pressure and millions of degrees of heat in places such as the centers of stars. Cold fusion is a concept so alien to what we know that there has never been any workable accepted theory as to how it could be accomplished, but that didn’t stop many from trying, and some claimed success.
In 1989 there was an experiment carried out by the electrochemist Martin Fleischmann and colleague Stanley Pons, who created an apparatus which they claimed could produce “anomalous heat” through a cold fusion process. They purportedly did this all through electrolysis of heavy water on the surface of a palladium electrode, and at the time it was exciting development because it held the promise of solving the world’s energy crisis, but since it was against everything we know about fusion it was also immediately met with skepticism. Additionally, there was much made of the flaws in the experiment, and no one seemed to be able to replicate the results. Although some teams continue to pursue cold fusion, it is mostly considered by mainstream science to be a dead end, and it is unknown if Fleischmann and Pons managed to actually pull it off or not.
This is by no means a complete list of all of the amazing discoveries we have made as a species over the ages that have, for one reason or other, been lost to us in time, for better or worse. There are many others, and while many seem to hold almost a mythical quality to them one cannot help but wonder how the world may have been different if they had come to fruition in their respective times. There is doubt that some of these were ever real to begin with, but they paint a picture of a dogged quest along path of discovery and understanding that has hit some bumps in the road. These supposed inventions remain lost to use, ciphers in the mist, which stir the imagination but which have been forever buried within the sands of time.