When the term “technology” comes up, the term “advanced” is, more often than not, associated with it. Innovation has, over the years come to be thought of generally as a sort of forward march, even in cases where it takes years such as in the case of the light bulb and car. While somewhat rare there are cases, despite some recent skepticism online, of what could accurately be called “lost” technologies. For our purposes here, the term “lost technology” refers to technologies that while having existed in the past in a usable form have ceased to do so in the present context, except in terms of previously made instances that have survived the extinction of the required knowledge. In general, there are two basic reasons for a technology having been lost. The most common cause is that the knowledge to make the item was simply lost over time. Less common but still a factor is the element of secrecy.

The sands of time: Lost technology

Damascus steel

One of the lesser known technological advancements, at least in its original form, is the very light, interminably strong, perpetually sharp weapons made out what is known as ‘Damascus steel’. Most likely the basis of the fictional Valerian steel in the Game of Thrones universe, Damascus steel originated in Syria and first became known to the Western world during the time of the first Crusade.

The original super metal, it was lighter, stronger and sharper than anything the Europeans had at the time and could apparently go through several battles without losing its edge. The decline of Damascus steel is one of the easiest to explain as, while being created by a literate society, the materials to make it were imported from India and with the souring of the trade relationship in the late 17th century, Syria lacked the resources to make the material and eventually it went out of favor and the method of making it was lost to history. The only reason we know about it now is through archaeological finds and written accounts from the period.

Greek fire

Perhaps the most famous lost technology, at least partly for its seeming incongruity, is Greek Fire. Again, mostly famous for its media representations including serving as the basis for Wild Fire in GoT, Greek Fire dates back to at least the early-Roman empire and amounted to a weapon of mass destruction on the age of swords and sandals and was, incidentally, a key factor in the decisive victory of Cesar Augustus, then known as Octavius, over Marc Anthony at the Battle of Actium, despite having the force of the Kingdom of Egypt and an inconsiderable contingent of Rome amassing against him.

One of the things that made Greek Fire unique was its jellied consistency, which made it stick to any surface it hit, making it very difficult to deflect. Water was also known to make the flames bigger, which meant it was next to impossible to put out unless one knew how, the procedure being fairly specific and slightly gross. A large part of the reason that Greek fire is a lost technology is that the exact way of making it was a closely guarded secret that was destroyed along with the Roman Empire.

Stradivarius instrument

Another case of secretiveness leading to the essential loss of innovation is the exact method of constructing a Stradivarius instrument. While the instrument structure is hardly a secret and there are certainly clues to how it was done by looking at the roughly 600 instruments that still survive, no one has yet gotten close to replicating a Stradivarius. The Stradivari family had a good thing going back in their own day and did not want their competition figuring out how they did what they did. The exact process they used to make their instruments was a closely guarded secret. It is a similar case to how they make Coke-a-Cola. The ingredients are printed on the side of the cans and bottle but only a handful of people know the exact recipe at any given time.

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Trevor McNeil
Trevor McNeil spent much of his childhood playing video-games on early-form personal computers back when the disks were literally floppy. He attended the University of Victoria, completing a degree in Social Science with a concentration in Technology In Society, while also writing for the campus newspaper. He has written articles for such diverse publications as Humanity Death Watch, PopMatters and Perfect Sound Forever. He is a veteran of numerous “watershed moments” in the history of technological development and firmly believes that Han shot first.

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