Behold a brave new past. Enthusiastic as we are about the latest eco-gadgetry — solar-powered fabrics, electric sports cars, backyard wind turbines — maybe it’s time to acknowledge that some of the most ingenious solutions to our planet’s woes appeared hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago, long before their inventors could have even anticipated the environmental problems we face today. So rather than discard these advances of yore, let’s pick out what we can reuse, and recycle it.

Windy cities

Long before oil was discovered in the land now known as Iran, its inhabitants pioneered a far cleaner energy source. Around 700 A.D., Persians developed windmills to mill grain. After spreading both east and west, the technology served as one of Europe’s primary energy sources until the Industrial Revolution, even surviving the attacks of Cervantes’s delusional hero Don Quixote, who mistook them for giants. Now the fastest growing source of energy, wind power accounts for 8 percent of power production in Cervantes’s homeland, Spain and 20 percent in Denmark. Will windmills become giants once again? Quixotic as it sounds, we think so.

Totally tubular 

How many German physicists does it take to screw in a light bulb? We don’t know, but it took only one to set us on the path to energy-efficient lighting. Heinrich Geissler, trained as a glass blower, created a predecessor to the fluorescent bulb in 1856, almost a quarter century before Thomas Edison patented his own incandescent bulb. The Geissler tube contained electrically excitable gas, just like today’s mercury vapor-filled fluorescent lights, which use two thirds less energy than incandescents. Why then did Edison’s invention catch on faster? At the time, fluorescent lights were expensive, huge and emitted eerie colors – kind of like the last Pink Floyd concert we attended.

Pedal pushers

Boomers might wax nostalgic for 1967, but 1819 was the real summer of love. That was the year German inventor Baron Karl Drais invented the Laufsmachine, a pedal-less predecessor to the modern bicycle, sparking an urban fad on par with scooters, Segways and online dating. Drais’s “running machine” was exactly that: Riders sat on the frame and propelled themselves, not very elegantly, by pushing along the ground with their feet. (Crying “Yabba-Dabba-Doo!” was strictly optional.) Interestingly, it may have been climate change that brought about the Laufsmachine. The abnormally cool weather of 1816’s “Year Without A Summer” decimated grain production across northern Europe, causing humans and livestock to starve, and possibly inspiring Drais’ interest in horseless transportation. Unfortunately, bike lanes hadn’t yet been invented; the Laufsmachine caused an uproar when well-to-do young men in London began terrorizing pedestrians on their “dandy horses.” As a result, many municipalities banned the Laufsmachine, delaying the development of human-powered transport until 1862, when a French baby carriage maker named Pierre Lallement attached pedals to Drais’s invention and created the first bicycle. 

Liquid assets

Before bars started serving it during happy hour, ethyl alcohol proved one of humanity’s most useful discoveries. For that, we can all toast eighth-century Persian alchemist Jabir Ibn Haiyan, inventor of the alembic: a simple chemical instrument consisting of two small glass chambers connected by a tube. Jabir probably wasn’t much of an environmentalist, or a drinker, but his device permitted the distillation of ethanol, a fuel source that today provides 40 percent of Brazil’s non-diesel gasoline and is generating plenty of bipartisan buzz stateside. The alembic also aided the development of pharmacology, by providing a solvent for medicines to be dissolved within, and is still used today by today’s chemists, some of whom believe ethyl alcohol, otherwise known as ethanol, might be just the right pick-me-up for the planet.

Churn and burn

Environmentalists often have mixed feelings about hydroelectric power, an energy source that requires the construction of expensive reservoirs, which sometimes damage surrounding ecosystems. But that shouldn’t lessen our admiration for the Slovakian inventor Johann Andreas von Segner. Water wheels already existed for 2,000 years in the mid-1700’s, but Segner’s design harnessed the force of a water stream with much greater efficiency, making it the precursor to the modern hydroelectric turbine. The energy source Segner helped pioneer provided 40 percent of the nation’s power needs in 1940, and all of Idaho’s as recently as 1995. Large-scale hydroelectric power may remain controversial, but Segner’s invention helped demonstrate the potential for renewable energy. 

Drink up

Here’s a classic eco-invention that might help you, should you ever wind up as a contestant on Survivor: stick a bucket full of impure water in a pit, cover the pit in clear plastic, wait until the sun heats up, and voila! Pure water condenses atop the plastic. While not widely used in developed countries, solar still plants across the developing world provide a cheap, fossil fuel-free way to purify water. For decades, the remote South African community of Kerkplaas relied on water truck deliveries; in 2002 the government solved the problem by building the country’s first solar still plant, using a technology first documented by Arab alchemists in the Middle Ages. For those who are tired of paying for a resource that is literally in the air all around us, some companies sell modern solar stills that are small, inexpensive and easy to operate.

Get a jolt

The human body is one of the world’s most efficient machines, but still — no system is perfect. Adding up lost body heat and movement, we fritter away roughly 100 watts at rest, 400 while walking quickly and 1,600 while sprinting. Capturing that energy isn’t easy, but one promising solution is piezoelectricity, the use of crystals to convert mechanical energy into electrical energy. The potential applications are many: the military has even discussed running soldier’s communication devices off of piezoelectric devices, while architects hope to power buildings by using floor vibrations generated through foot traffic. So why is this space-age technology on our list? Because it isn’t space-age. Thousands of years ago, the Ute Indians of Colorado cleverly filled rattles with pieces of quartz that glowed when shaken together to create the world’s first flashlight, no batteries required.

In the dirt

In one (possibly apocryphal) account of the building of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s fellow colonists were baffled by his decision to build the estate out of rammed earth — a construction method in which a mixture of dirt, water and sand are tamped down until it becomes hard as stone. With acres of virgin forest around for timber, they asked, why would you build a house out of mud? Maybe Jefferson just knew his world architecture history. Since ancient times, rammed earth has provided soundproof and temperate dwellings for folks from China to the Mediterranean, cooling their occupants on hot days and warming them on chilly evenings. The first-century Roman author Pliny the Elder was full of praise for the earth shelters that existed before the Romans discovered concrete: “Do they not last for ages, undamaged by rain, wind and fire, and stronger than quarry stone?” In an age of rapid deforestation and skyrocketing utility bills, it’s no wonder that today’s architects have rediscovered rammed earth, or that some construction firms even specialize in it.

Drop by drop 

Sometimes a leaky pipe can be good thing; ask any farmer or homeowner who’s slashed their water bill after installing drip irrigation. By soaking the soil one drop at a time through tiny pipes, the drip system conserves our most precious resource and allows greater yields. But an even easier way has been practiced for millennia in arid regions of Central America: Farmers there fill porous clay pots with water and then bury them in the soil. As the pots leak, the plants drink. Still in use in developing countries, this evaporation-resistant irrigation system wastes less water than the most expensive modern drip system and is loads more efficient than conventional irrigation. 

Story by Justin Tyler Clark. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Look to the past for new solutions
Some of the most ingenious solutions to our planet's woes appeared before their inventors could have anticipated the environmental problems we face today.