5 Inventions That Were Way Ahead Of Their Time

Sometimes, it must really suck to be an inventor. You come up with a fantastic idea, nobody listens to you, and then, centuries later, it's rediscovered and celebrated as a brilliant innovation...created by somebody else. No wonder Belle's father in Beauty & The Beast has a bit of a hard time. This idea of an invention being "lost," only to have someone else get the credit for inventing it decades or centuries later, may seem like a relic of the ancient past — but there are actually several modern inventions we take for granted that were actually "discovered" many, many years before they became widespread or popular in our culture.

Some inventions went unnoticed at the time simply because the inventor died before they had time to properly execute it; if they'd lived a bit longer, they could have claimed the credit. For example, Galileo designed the first pendulum clock in the 1630s, but neither he nor his son lived long enough to complete a prototype; so it was left to the Dutchman Christiaan Huygens to patent the idea in 1656.

Some other inventions might strike us as "ahead of their time," but in reality, they were clearly discovered and enjoyed widely in civilizations that later fell, so that later civilizations had no idea of them. It seems the ancient Aztecs used flushing toilets and water fountains, but their know-how was lost when their civilization fell — so Europeans had to "invent" these things from scratch, thousands of years later, without ever knowing that they had already existed in another culture.

The five inventions below were truly ahead of their time — not all of them were actually manufactured, and very few of them took off at the time; but all of them remind us that our modern culture doesn't have a monopoly on innovation.

1. Leonardo da Vinci's Armored Car, 1485

It's easier to discuss the things da Vinci didn't invent than the ones he did. He was a visionary whose inventions ranged from the parachute to the diving suit. Many of his sketches in his Codices were never made into real prototypes, but when looking at them, the mind utterly boggles. How many people could conceive of an armored car five centuries before anybody else?

Da Vinci's armored car looks a bit like a moveable hut, was entirely filled with cannons, and was "driven" by cranking internal wheels. (There was actually a mechanical error that kept the wheels from turning properly — but the car was never built, so it didn't technically matter.) It could fire in every direction, possibly at once.

2. Ferdinand Verbiest's Automobile, 1672

No, the motor car was not invented by Henry Ford. It's had a long and strange history, but the first real "car" may have been a tiny one invented for the entertainment of the Chinese emperor by a Flemish mathematician, astronomer and diplomat. Ferdinand Verbiest sounds like a fun person to have at a dinner party: he traveled to China to correct its astronomical calendar and run its chief observatory, spoke more than seven languages, and wrote 30 books. But he's mostly famous today because of a toy he made to please his boss.

His tiny "car" was actually steam-powered, and only meant to be about 25 inches long, as a scale model for a bigger prototype. It was powered by a sphere-shaped steam boiler, and wasn't designed to carry passengers or be steered. Nobody knows if he ever had it built, or whether it was fun to send across the court floor to chase after people.

3. Bi Sheng's Movable Type, 11th Century

If you're called on to answer a question about "who invented moveable type," chances are you'll talk about Gutenberg's famous printing press — but you'd be wrong. The real innovator of movable type lived centuries beforehand, and was all the more remarkable because he was actually a peasant. According to the records of the scientist Shen Kuo, the Chinese inventor Bi Sheng made the world's first moveable type out of baked clay or porcelain.

Type itself (using carved blocks to print letters or symbols) had been around for thousands of years, but Bi Sheng's system used an iron "plate," which he filled with individual blocks of type. He then coated the plate with ink and pressed down on parchment. And presto: a printed page. The system was never widely adopted, but the Chinese made improvements on the general idea over centuries, eventually using wood and bronze blocks.

4. Rene Descartes' Contact Lenses, 1636

This is a bit of a cheat, as da Vinci had the jump on Descartes (yes, the cogito ergo sum dude) for this one by about 150 years; but Descartes' idea was much more successful, so we're going to give him a break. By "successful" I don't mean "workable," though. The modern idea of a contact lens as a small lens placed onto the surface of the eye didn't evolve until centuries after Descartes. But he had the same fundamental idea: placing something on the surface of the eye to improve sight.

Descartes's prototype was a long, water-filled tube with a lens on one end. The user was meant to press the other end against their cornea. Obviously, this creates a whole host of problems, not least of which is that the user couldn't blink; but it was an improvement on da Vinci's idea (which was basically a bowl of water), and informed the invention of the first "real" contact lenses in 1801.

5. Hero Of Alexandria's Vending Machine, 1st Century

This is one of the weirder ones: your modern-day vending machine, with its candies and sodas, is actually descended from a coin-operated machine designed to dispense holy water. It was, according to the Smithsonian, designed by ancient Greek engineer Hero of Alexandria to solve a supply problem: people were taking too much holy water from temples, and there needed to be regulation. Hero had the solution.

His vending machine wasn't particularly sophisticated: put a coin in the slot, the weight of the coin hits a beam, the beam tilts, a string pulls and water is dispensed for a brief period of time until the coin falls off. Considering that Hero also invented a primitive robot, a steam-powered engine, a water-powered organ and a fire engine, it seems a bit of a shame that this may be what he's most famous for. But hey, you can't choose your legacy.

Images: Wikimedia Commons (5)