Tech In Plain Sight: Primitive Engineering Materials

It isn’t an uncommon science fiction trope for our hero to be in a situation where there is no technology. Maybe she’s back in the past or on a faraway planet. The Professor from Gilligan’s Island comes to mind, too. I’d bet the average Hacakday reader could do pretty well in that kind of situation, but there’s one thing that’s often overlooked: materials. Sure, you can build a radio. But can you make wire? Or metal plates for a capacitor? Or a speaker? We tend to overlook how many abstractions we use when we build. Even turning trees into lumber isn’t a totally obvious process.

People are by their very nature always looking for ways to use the things around them. Even 300,000 years ago, people would find rocks and use them as tools. It wasn’t long before they found that some rocks could shape other rocks to form useful shapes like axes. But the age of engineered materials is much younger. Whether clay, metal, glass, or more obviously plastics, these materials are significantly more useful than rocks tied to sticks, but making them in the first place is an engineering story all on its own.

Wood, Mud, Clay

The first steps were using wood from trees, including bark and unusual wood like cork, and other plant materials. They used mud, too, and mudworking evolved into ceramics about 26,000 years ago. Pottery was high science in its day. The Corded Ware culture, who spread across Europe around 5,000 years ago, created pottery that  they would decorate with rope while it was still wet. When fired, the rope would burn away and leave its imprint in the finished piece. Bone was another early structural element. People today sometimes mimic prehistoric pottery techniques, like the stone-age tech video below.

Copper Days

When the first people stumbled into copper in its elemental form, around 7,500 years ago, people started to shape it into useful implements. About 500 years later, there is evidence people learned to melt copper to help with the shaping process. It would be another 1,000 years before craftsmen started melting copper and casting it. Copper is soft on its own, but by experimentation or accident someone figured out that adding arsenic to copper would make bronze, which was much harder. Even a half percent of arsenic can make a bronze that is 10% harder and stronger than elemental copper. Bump that two percent and the results are even better.  Later bronze formulae would employ tin in place of the arsenic, but tin would have to wait for more advanced metallurgy. It took over, though, not because it is much better from a metallurgy standpoint, but smelting and casting arsenic is bad for your health.

Since copper ore often has arsenic in it anyway, this bronze discovery was easy to make. Bronze was used extensively in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America at different times in the distant past. If you have the gear, you can make your own bronze like [Paul] does in the video below. You probably even already have the solder he uses.

Beyond Bronze

Metals beyond bronze would have to wait until about 5,000 years ago when ironworking is thought to have started in earnest, coexisting for a time with bronze, and then eventually replaced by steel. The Iron Pillar of Delhi is the oldest surviving example of corrosion-resistant iron. The pillar is over seven meters tall and is about 1,600 years old. While people in Persia and India learned to create steel, its production was highly specialized and steel wasn’t widely available until the 1800s.

Although the pyramids in Egypt and Central America are impressive, the Greeks and Romans really had a handle on material sciences. It didn’t hurt that the Romans had soil that made it easy to create concrete. The Greeks knew about asbestos and used it for clothing and tablecloths. The upside was to clean them you simply threw them in a fire. The downside was that scholars noted that the slaves mining asbestos didn’t live very long.

Real Engineered Materials

Probably the closest we had to an engineered material for many centuries was glass. Glass has a surprisingly long history. Glass can occur naturally around volcanos and when lightning strikes sand, but it was relatively rare making it very valuable. Archeologists think that glass production started in northern Syria, Mesopotamia, or Egypt. Egyptian glass dates back to about 3100 BC. Molded glass appears in Syria around 1500 BC. Keep in mind there was no Internet and making glass was a closely-guarded secret. By 650 BC, though, a manual was written in cuneiform describing how to create glass. Nearly six centuries later, the Babylonians figured out how to blow glass.

Many people who worked glass didn’t actually make it but acquired it premade as beads, rods, or ingots. Glass ingots have been found onboard ancient shipwrecks such as the Uluburun shipwreck off the coast of Turkey. The 175 colored ingots are the oldest known. Interestingly, the ship also carried a jar full of glass beads along with other raw materials like ten tons of copper and about a ton of tin. This would be sufficient to create about 11 tons of bronze.

One of the great things about glass is that can be heated and remade. This is good for recycling, too, of course. The hotter the glass, the less viscous it is. That means that you can heat glass up to make it very amenable to reshaping and then as it cools you can do more precise manipulations on it as the viscosity decreases.

Romans really had glassworking down pat. You can see a recreation of how they made glass pieces in the video below.

Starting about 25 AD, glass really took off. Within a century, it became relatively affordable. This is about the same time people figured out that adding manganese dioxide to glass would render it clear and, as mentioned earlier, the Babylonians learned to blow glass, making production of glass vessels cheaper than many alternatives. Window glass was very poor quality at this time, however.

More Modern Glass

It would be 1674 before George Ravenscroft discovered that adding lead oxide to molten glass made it easier to work and improved the finished appearance. The idea that glassmaking is so old is incredible when you realize that it requires temperatures of around 1700 °C. Today that’s not a big deal, but imagine building such a furnace thousands of years ago, or on that alien planet you are stranded on.

Modern commercial glass uses soda ash to lower the melting point. However, glass made with soda ash had an unfortunate tendency to melt in water. The inclusion of limestone creates soda-lime glass which handles water just fine. In addition, magnesium oxide and aluminum oxide make the glass more durable. The exact additives depend on the use of the glass. While pure glass — fused quartz — would be 100% silica, modern glass is about 70% by weight. There are other processes, too. Pyrex is a brand name for borosilicate glass which is made with boron oxide to give it excellent temperature resistance. Gorilla glass is well-known for durability in cell phones. You can see how that’s made in the video below.

Front of House

Modern glass factories usually have three distinct parts: the batch house, the hot end, and the cold end. The batch house handles the raw materials. As you might expect, the hot end melts down the sand and other raw materials to create glass. The cold end treats, inspects, and post processes the glass products.

Sheet glass is made using a float process. A metallic liquid — usually tin — holds the molten glass until it hardens. Tin works well because it has a high specific gravity and doesn’t mix with the molten glass. However, oxygen causes problems with tin dioxide production, so the process is usually done in a nitrogen atmosphere. This produces a very flat and uniform sheet. Prior to the invention of the float glass process, sheet glass was made by blowing cylinders, cutting them, and flattening them out, among other methods.

As you can imagine, this wasn’t very effective. The tin bath self-levels and the glass forms a perfectly smooth and evenly thick ribbon. As the glass flows, the tin bath’s temperature is cooled from 1100 °C to about 600 °C. Then the glass can be picked off with rollers. The speed of the rollers and the flow speed create different thicknesses of glass. Cooling through a special kiln anneals the glass and it is later cut into sheets of the desired size.

One Word… Plastics

We haven’t even gotten to plastics, but since most people know about them, that’s not a problem. Plastics as we know them date back to 1907, so they are in the same age bracket as radio and computers. Sure, there were some naturally occurring plastic materials or materials like rubber that could be processed into useful forms: mesoamericans, for example, used natural rubber for balls. Some early plastics were made from milk, which is a common science experiment for kids, even today.

The first synthetic plastic wasn’t bakelite, although that was the first fully synthetic plastic. The first was in 1855 when [Alexander Parkes] reduced cellulose with nitric acid to form Parkesine which saw some use as fake ivory. In the late 1800s, several milk-based plastics appeared. Widespread plastic use didn’t really start, however, until after World War I. Many common plastics like PET and polypropylene didn’t appear until the 1940s and 1950s.

Next Time

Next time you want to imagine being stranded on a low tech planet and setting yourself up as king, think about all the materials you take for granted as a citizen of a technological civilization. (And read the second book in Harry Harrison’s Deathworld trilogy for a more practical take on the scenario.) Wire, fasteners, pressure-treated lumber, sheet metal, plastics, adhesives, solder. We stand on the shoulders of giants so tall, we hardly notice they are there.

If you do find yourself on Harrison’s planet, maybe save time and just build a 3D printer. Then you can mold glass. But then you’ll need motors and controllers. That takes wire and metal contacts and resistors and… well…  we didn’t say it was going to be easy. Then again, solar heat and sand can make glass without too much tech.

33 thoughts on “Tech In Plain Sight: Primitive Engineering Materials

  1. A fascinating book on this very subject is Jules Verne’s “Mysterious Island”. Set during the Civil War, and deserted on a remote island, an engineer and a few others recreate almost the entirety of then-modern technology with only the raw materials found on the island. Incredible read!

    1. Let’s hope that isn’t really happening somewhere right now,
      Can you imagine what an engineer could accomplish without bean counters, MBAs in Marketing, and Pointy Haired Bosses, or Gilligans to hamper their progress?
      B^)

  2. This is Europe-centric. Some of my family has been on this continent for at least 10,000 years. They get portrayed as “primitive” because it wasn’t like in Europe. But it’s perpetuated when “technology” (a relative thing) is seen only as from Europe.

    If I could get inside my great, great, great grandmother’s mind, there would be complex thought, and a full language, and thoughts about when Europeans first appeared. She lived a long time, and saw a whole lot change.

    1. No, it isnt. It’s “engineering materials”-centric. If the majority of engineering materials (beyond bone, wood, clay) were developed and used in Europe (and Africa, and Asia, and Central/South America, as the article mentions) then, make of that what you will.
      Do your grievance peddling elsewhere.

      1. Western hemisphere people never invented concrete or the keystone arch, and apparently the only use some found for the wheel was on children’s toys. They did have highly developed agriculture, to the point of fertilizing huge areas of South American grassland with charcoal. That fertile ground got overrun by jungle as their civilizations declined – to the point where by the time Europeans arrived they were already “on their hind foot”.

        Has anyone figured out why western hemisphere agriculture got more and more primitive the further north the location, especially north of what would eventually become Mexico?

        1. So this entire topic is actually more complicated. First, some people suspect that the reason for the decline in S. America was depopulation due to the introduction of disease by the very first European explorers. Second, at the time of first contact, there was an extensive irrigation network in place in what is now the SW United States, but archeology does seem to imply that civilization in the region had peaked during the Medieval Warm Period and the following few centuries, by the time Europeans were showing up the climate was both colder and drier. Something similar seems like it may have occurred with the Mound Building cultures in the United States Midwest, just earlier. But let us not forget that we are talking about what are probably the greatest plant breeders in history – look up what wild corn (maize), called teosinte, looks like if you don’t believe me. Nevertheless, the argument that this article is Eurocentric is unfortunate, and also saddens me because it shows the lack of education about the accomplishments of the Native Americans. Even in the realm of materials science – the Incas electroplated gold over copper and could work Platinum (one of the most refractory metals) by cleverly using gold to sinter it – all before the Europeans arrived and all things that nobody recreated until much later.

    2. I agree with Kelly.

      Materials are materials, and technology is technology and not really relative. What we can see in history is a lot of technology developing in different places at different times, and some cultures not really progressing much. Partly because they didn’t need too, or they culture didn’t see a reason too. If you can live in nature without much technology, well, there isn’t much drive to use and develop it. If you can’t survive without it, those who use it survive and say its a damn good idea to the next generation. Some sees living as hunter gatherers as the ultimate, others that we shouldn’t use technology, but its nice to not run naked in the wild eating raw food.

      Fire. Sharpened sticks. Stone tools and weapons. Animal skins. Clay pots. Simple houses. The wheel. Its all Technology. Say what you want about mother nature, she sure don’t give a shit if you don’t adapt.

      Primitive literally means less advanced and simpler. Unless you see it that way, it doesn’t have to say anything about the humans _mind_, and the difference between a human born 3000 years ago and today is mostly down to better living standard and education.

      And guess what? That comes mostly from technology.

      But I can pretty much guarantee, that if your great, great, great grandmother met a tribe of people living without fire, clay pots and using sticks and stones, she would have called them primitive.

    3. Technology is technology, lots of tech of the past is lost for a while as civilisations and empires rise and fall, re-imported from the wider world that remembered how (even if they where not much able to use it as many technologies require materials from around the globe, so when the x mines of y are lost to you…) – lots of technologies come back into Europe from the Middle East scholars for instance or of course just get invented in multiple places at multiple times…

      The thing with documenting technology and talking about history is that only some nations documented what they knew in any way that survives – and that hugely favours Europe as the centre of much of the technological world – the industrial revolution and all that came from it was made possible by and exported to the rest of the world during the empires of Europe being just about the only meaningful world powers, and only nations with much in the way of technology…

      Any first nations ‘primitive’ peoples just flat out don’t have much technology, what they have is a great deal of knowledge of their surrounds and bushcraft skills – which is not saying anything against their intelligence or capacity to develop technologies, but when the height of tech for most of these nations is the stick that is 9/10ths broken firing twigs with pointy ends on (don’t get me wrong bows are good, but as technologies go very primitive), and many of the more ‘primitive’ cultures encountered by the expanding colonial powers didn’t even have that… Which when you then add that any technology such cultures did have would be documented and brought back to the ‘civilised’ world – where the source of the idea is less likely to be credited, and the growing science movement would actually figure out the reason x worked and develop the idea further making it a ‘European discovery’…

      Or in short there is a vast difference between noting a technologically primitive civilisation/people and saying those folks were apes dressed up as humans… Get over coming from a technologically backwards civilisation at the time the Europeans arrived – heck in many ways those folks to are to be applauded for doing so well with so little, some of those older ‘primitive’ pre-contact civilisations are really quite impressive, at least from what little we can actually know of them (which in some cases is almost nothing but that they existed and traded x for y readily – when a people doesn’t document or construct monuments that last a large portion of what is ‘known’ about them comes from the scholars of other civilisations, quite possibly documenting a combination of hearsay and propaganda, certainly without the full understanding of actually experiencing it as the native would…)

  3. Why would you want to build a radio?

    “steel wasn’t widely available until the 1800s.” Except for the part of the world between Japan and Arabia. And the Vikings. And the Romans.

  4. Nice article! I think about this almost every day… which is probably why I don’t accomplish much.

    It’s easy to look at antique or ancient tech and think “we’ve advanced far beyond that.” But what about me? Could I do that?

  5. Take wire for example. You can say, sure, I can heat metal ore and pour molten metal onto a scratched clay slab ect. But consider you’ve got to find that ore. The hardest bit is becoming stable enough to have the time to do things like that. In a survival situation, even after you’ve got a substantial shelter, you spend your time finding food and trying to boil water. It’s likely that without specialisation and society, technology would struggle to progress, even with the knowledge already in place.

    1. Agreed. I think any fan of this site would be the volunteer in a group to work on making the tools while the others hunted, cooked, and collected firewood. But if you are going it alone, or if you are the hunter or cook, you might only have a few minutes for abstraction.

      1. That’s why you build traps for fish ect. Giving you time to so other things. Perhaps you hollow some bamboo and make a ram pump or just divert a high elevation stream. Even making a large mound of earth to turn branches into charcoal and making sure your bed is warm, every half hour you save, is thinking time.

    1. Can’t answer for Hackaday, but I never saw the purpose of CE/BCE… The “Common Era” in question would still be related to the estimated birth of Jesus (with errors), and the “Era” itself would still be related to the age of Christianity…

      I understand some people have an aversion to the terms “Christ” or “Domini,” but regardless of which is used, they are still based on the same events.

      Plenty of other calendars exist to choose from. Computers don’t mesh well with the Mayan calander? Blah… trivialities.

      1. Ab urba condite woud be right if we could be certain of that date.

        Maybe base dates on the Muslim Hijra (A.H.)?

        There’s always “BP” Before Present, but that changes over time.

        If it would please you we could switch to the Hebrew calendar.

        1. I personally don’t advocate any change. BC/AD is fine with me. And actually, BP is commonly based on 01/01/1950, a roughly easy date to work with before humanity really started to artificially alter the C12/C14 ratio of the atmosphere.

    1. I cannot claim to be an expert, but I have had the opportunity to watch a Native American potter at work using the traditional technique of her tribe (Acoma Pueblo, decades ago) and it did look very much like this. Plus he _says_ that he is incorporating additives (presumably that would have been used historically) and adding water so volume and color change make sense. While scepticism is necessary, not everything is a scam..

  6. Technology is inate and has existed longer than our species,and exists today outside
    of hominid,primate,or even mamals.
    It is likely that an exact origin or primary cause or motivation will
    remain elusive,we are kind of like fish talking about water.

  7. A (late) friend of mine was in the hypothetical situation outlined, non hypothetically.

    He was a materials scientist.

    After an unfortunate engine failure of his Spitfire (X4493) he found himself confined in Stalagluft III. (Yes, that one, Wooden Horse, Great Escape)
    He was tasked with making a radio. The available materials included tin cans, jam jars and light-bulb filaments. And that is _probably_ just about enough to make a valve radio if you are familiar with the technology.
    He was well on the way, and was working on the tricky problem of how to make an effective vacuum pump when some real valves rolled under the hut door one night.

    I know, he should have improvised a 555 timer instead.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Harding_(metallurgist)

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