If you could draw a graph showing the growth of mankind's knowledge and technology, you'd think it would look like a staircase, steadily edging upward year after year as we get a little bit smarter than our ancestors.
It's not true, though. Some of the most amazing things ever discovered wound up lost or forgotten for centuries, for utterly ridiculous reasons. Such as...
A whole lot of the modern world you're enjoying right now exists thanks to the invention of the steam engine, which kicked off the industrial age. It was invented in 1712 and later improved by James Watt, who would get all of the credit (right down to everyone using his last name to measure electricity).
Wait, did we say it was invented in 1712? Because that's actually off by 1600 years or so.
Some time in the first century, an engineer called Heron of Alexandria, or Hero to his friends, set to work on an aeolipile--a small, steam-powered turbine that propelled itself by shooting steam out of one or more orifices. Freaking 1600 years before the Europeans declared that the "new" steam engine would completely revolutionize the world.
How Could We Have Forgotten It?
It was too far ahead of its time. Think about it: This is a damned steam engine built during the era when the New Testament was going on. It would be like somebody making a prototype Warp Drive during World War I. No one could figure out what to do with it.
Look at it. It's like Sputnik. Is it a toy? A cooking implement?
Whatever Hero intended for his cool whatsamabobbit, everyone else just saw it as a novelty. Which is too bad, because it really could have got the modernization ball rolling a lot earlier. Inventors like Watt were wasting their talents inventing an engine that had already been invented, rather than perfecting x-ray vision and hoverboards.
The Golden Buddha is a solid gold statue that is almost 10-feet tall, more than 12-feet wide and weighs in at an impressive five and a half tons. In other words, it isn't the sort of thing that slips between the couch cushions and vanishes.
And it's old. Experts' best guess is that it's from the 13th century. So about the time that Marco Polo was pretending to explore China, somebody in Thailand was shaping a buttload of gold into this guy.
Yet, from the late 17th century until the 1950s, no one had any clue that the statue existed. Even though it was in plain sight.
How Could We Have Forgotten It?
In the 1700s the Burmese were invading Thailand, and the Thai king needed to protect the country's most precious assets, among them being this ginormous solid gold statue, which was sittin' around, all shiny and rich looking. So the king ordered that the locals cover it with plaster and stick it in an inauspicious temple.
A year later, the Thai population revolted against the Burmese occupation and took back control of the city. Although accurate records are lost, it is speculated the Thais celebrated their victory with Red Bull, a pinata and not bothering to take the plaster off of the Golden Buddha right away.
Eventually, people forgot there were 11,000 pounds of gold under there. Let's see, gold is currently worth over $1,100 an ounce, 16 ounces in a pound, so... that's about two hundred million dollars worth of gold.
Enough gold to make Manute Bol look like Spud Webb, and really really black.
Decades passed and Golden Buddha still sat in stucco. Eventually the statue was relegated to a tin-roofed shed because it was simply just in the way. It was this ugly, plaster thing that was way heavier than it should be. But it couldn't be destroyed, because it was a Buddha statue. Ultimately, even the shed started falling apart, so in the 1950s the monks figure they'd better put the effigy somewhere out of the rain, lest they risk the wrath of the Enlightened One.
Even with the finest crane technology available in Thailand in the 1950s, the monks still botched the job, dropping the statue in a mud puddle. Attempting to dodge the karmic lightning bolts they incurred through their inept hoisting, they fled the scene, leaving the statue in a puddle overnight. Seriously, monks, get it together.
When one of them poked at the statue the next morning, some of the plaster scraped off, revealing that, oh, wait, this is one of the most valuable things in the history of mankind.
Before meth addiction was the #1 cause of tooth loss among otherwise healthy pirates, it was scurvy. And scurvy, as hilarious as it sounds, is no ball of laughs. First your gums get all bloody and your teeth loosen, then your skin gets spotty and you start bleeding from your mucous membranes. Finally, you develop open sores and become immobile. It was the scourge of sea-going folk for centuries.
Then in 1747, a naval doctor named James Lind demonstrated that scurvy could be cured with fresh lemons. Lemon love was even enacted into law: All ships in the British navy were required to provide a lemon juice ration for their seamen.
The lemon juice ration led to British sailors being dubbed "limeys," because at the time, people thought all citrus fruits were basically the same, and all citrus fruits were called limes (FORESHADOWING: THEY'RE NOT ALL THE SAME). The point is, thanks to lemons, scurvy was a thing of the past.
But scurvy was just gearing up for Scurvy 2: The Revenge. Most diseases need to develop a new strand to have their big budget sequel, but all scurvy needed was everyone to forget the cure, which everyone promptly did. This was bad news for a team of British scientists who took a three year journey to the South Pole, and packed nothing but biscuits, canned fat, cocoa, butter and sugar, which was supplemented by their horses when the starving time came. Despite the fact that it was almost 200 years after the cure for scurvy was discovered by one of their own damned countrymen, they were plum baffled when everyone got scurvy.
How Could We Have Forgotten It?
They never really understood the lemon thing in the first place.
Which is why the British Navy switched the ration from lemons to limes in the early 19th century; limes were plentiful within the empire. Unfortunately, they're not as rich in vitamin C, and no one made the link between vitamin C deficiency and scurvy until 1932--almost two hundred damned years after we first figured out lemons helped. And not only were the limes not as chock full of anti-scurvy nectar, but the navy didn't serve it fresh, they served it as juice. In the process of juicing, they got rid of a good deal of the vitamin C.
It turns out there's a downside to living on boats in the middle of nowhere for months at a time.
At the same time, better naval technology shortened voyages, so scurvy didn't have the chance to manifest itself as it used to. So everyone thought limes were doing the trick, but they weren't. And, as if there weren't already Three's Company level misunderstandings, the dominant theory was that rotten meat, not lack of vitamin C, caused scurvy. And all of these things combined in one horrific expedition to the Antarctic.
It wasn't until 20 years later that people actually used something called "science" and "evidence" to nail down the actual cure for scurvy. Which, it turns out, was the same cure discovered a couple of centuries before.