Ancient Chinese Wind-powered Car

Today on Far Future Horizons we explore the exciting possibility that the ancient civilizations of the classical world already had a conceptual inkling of transportation technology presaging that of the modern world.



Surprising archaeological finds and ancient manuscripts have led historians to new conclusions about the technology invented by ancient peoples. It is well known that ships had become sophisticated throughout the Classical world, but how successfully did ancient peoples travel overland, or move their building materials and goods? It appears that the ancients had developed complex systems to solve the problems of transportation.


The Saqqara Bird

This episode of Ancient Discoveries examines transportation technology that existed in the ancient world. It discusses a Greek "railway", Chinese wind-powered vehicles, and possibility of flying machines in ancient Egypt, in the form of the enigmatic and very controversial Saqqara Bird. Does this model prove that the ancient Egyptians had knowledge of the principles of flight? Personally I doubt it.

The Legend of Wàn Hǔ

A Model of  Wàn Hǔ's Rocket Chair




This episode of Ancient Discoveries will also explores the legend of Wàn Hǔ, the world's first recorded "astronaut" and his perilous rocket chair. The crater Wàn Hǔ on the far side of the Moon is named after him. 


Steam Machine Car Designed by Ferdinand Verbiest 1678


The documentary also makes a brief mention of Father Ferdinand Verbiest a Flemish Jesuit missionary in China during the Qing dynasty. He was born in Pittem near Tielt in Flanders, later part of the modern state of Belgium. He is known as Nan Huairen in Chinese. He was an accomplished mathematician and astronomer and proved to the court of the Kangxi Emperor that European astronomy was more accurate than Chinese astronomy. He then corrected the Chinese calendar and was later asked to rebuild and re-equip the Beijing Ancient Observatory, being given the role of Head of the Mathematical Board and Director of the Observatory.

He became close friends with the Kangxi Emperor, who frequently requested his teaching, in geometry, philosophy and music.

Verbiest worked as a diplomat and cartographer, and also as a translator, because he spoke Latin, German, Dutch, Spanish, Hebrew, and Italian. He wrote more than thirty books.


During the 1670s, Verbiest designed what some claim to be the first ever self-propelled vehicle – many claim this as the world's first automobile, in spite of its small size and the lack of evidence that it was actually built.



Around 1672 he designed – as a toy for the Chinese Emperor – a steam-propelled trolley which was, quite possibly, the first working steam-powered vehicle ('auto-mobile').Verbiest describes it in his work Astronomia Europea. As it was only 65 cm (25.6 in) long, and therefore effectively a scale model, not designed to carry human passengers, nor a driver, it is not strictly accurate to call it a 'car'.


Steam was generated in a ball-shaped boiler, emerging through a pipe at the top, from where it was directed at a simple, open 'steam turbine' (rather like a water wheel) that drove the rear wheels.



Ancient Discoveries: Cars And Planes is available on DVD from the History Channel’s online store.

Ancient Discoveries: Cars And Planes
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