MadSci Network: Science History

Re: Who invented the 5 simple machines?

Date: Fri May 16 00:53:02 2003
Posted By: John Christie, Faculty, School of Chemistry, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria, Australia
Area of science: Science History
ID: 1052927752.Sh

You can ask the question "when where and who..." about inventions or discoveries. Often the story 
of inventions or discoveries is much more complicated than that. "When..." is usually the easiest, 
and usually gets a fairly definite answer. If the "when..." comes out at more than 2000 years ago, 
as it does with at least four of these five, the "where..." becomes difficult, and the "who..." 
impossible to answer.

The answers given to "where..." in prehistoric cases are sometimes themselves questionable and 
culturally insensitive. Encyclopedias often come up with Europe-centred answers, assigning 
discoveries to Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, or West Asia, and showing little regard to 
other early societies in East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, or Australia. The "who..." is inevitably long-

The earliest of these "machines" is probably the inclined plane. But what do you have to do to 
"invent" the inclined plane as a machine. Suppose you are with a stone age tribe, and you want 
to get something heavy to the top of a cliff. After a lot of fruitless struggling to lift it into place 
you say "Look, maybe it would be better to drag it around the slope. We'll have to go a bit further,
but at least that way it will be a lot easier." Does saying something like that amount to "inventing" 
the inclined plane as a "machine"? Or do we require a bit more than that? It does not matter too 
much; however you add it up, the inclined plane was in use at the start of the stone age, and was 
an important feature of all of the megalithic cultures (pyramids, Stonehenge, Easter Island, etc.)

The wedge is also an early stone age machine. The principle of the wedge has been in use for 
removing bark from trees in large single slabs for at least 4000 years in Australia, maybe much 
more, and probably as long or longer elsewhere. This is how early boats were made here. It is 
arguable that the wedge itself incorporates both the features of the inclined plane and the lever in 
its operation.

Archimedes, Greece, 250 BC worked out a lot of the Maths of the lever. The principle of the lever 
as a tool was well known in ancient Greek culture, and almost certainly dated long before then. 
Using leverage to gain mechanical advantage would have been a necessary part of solving a lot of 
the mechanical problems facing stone age tribes. One place where a lever is used is in spear-
throwing sticks.

For the wheel, try this web page: wheel invention 
You will see on the page that it suggests over 5500 years ago in Iraq.

With the pulley, things are not at all clear. The first question is whether a machine has to have an 
axled wheel to count as a pulley. Using a branch or sapling to change the direction of tension in a 
rope or cord is clearly a prehistoric strategy. This could have been refined with a worn groove in 
the sapling, and the worn groove could have been greased to make it slide better. From there it is 
a small step to a greased turnbuckle. At what stage did an axle and grooved wheel come in? Does 
a greased turnbuckle without an axled wheel count as a pulley?

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