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6000 BC - 1700 AD: Early Applications and Speculation

Biotechnology as a way of life in ancient and pre-modern times. The advent of observational science.


6000 BC

Yeast was used to make beer by Sumerians and Babylonians.


4000 BC

The Egyptians discovered how to bake leavened bread using yeast. Other fermentation processes were established in the ancient world, notably in China. The preservation of milk by lactic acid bacteria resulted in yogurt. Molds were used to produce cheese, and vinegar and wine were manufactured by fermentation.


1000 BC

Babylonians celebrated the pollination of date palm trees with religious rituals.


420 BC

Socrates (470? - 399 BC), the Greek philosopher, speculated on why children don't always resemble their parents. He enjoyed remarking that the sons of great statesmen were usually lazy and good for nothing.


400 BC

Hippocrates (460 - 377 BC) determined that the male contribution to a child's heredity is carried in the semen. By analogy, he guessed there is a similar fluid in women, since children clearly receive traits from each in approximately equal proportion.


320 BC

Aristotle (384 - 322 BC), choosing to reject the theories of Hippocrates, told his students that all inheritance comes from the father. The male semen, he asserted, determines the baby's form, while the mother merely provides the material from which the baby is made. He suggested that female babies are caused by "interference" from the mother's blood.


100 AD

Romans speculated that mares can be fertilized by the wind.


100-300 AD

Hindu philosophers first pondered the nature of reproduction and inheritance.


1000 AD

Hindus observed that certain diseases may "run in the family." Moreover, they came to believe that children inherit all their parents' characteristics. "A man of base descents can never escape his origins," went the laws of Manu.


1100 - 1700 AD

Spontaneous Generation is the dominant explanation that organisms arise from non-living matter. Maggots, for example, were supposed to arise from horsehair.


1300 AD

The Aztecs in Mexico harvested algae from lakes as a food source.


1400 AD

While distillation of a variety of spirits from fermented grain was widespread, Egypt and Persia largely gave up brewing as a result of the influence of Islam. Fermented breads and cereals still maintained their hold in the African diet.


1630 AD

William Harvey concluded that plants and animals alike reproduce in a sexual manner: males contribute pollen or sperm; females contribute eggs. However, two hundred years passed before the first mammalian eggs were observed.


1665 AD

Robert Hooke observed the cellular structure of cork. But it wasn't until almost 200 years later that scientists, armed with better microscopes, realized that all of us are divided into very small compartments.


1668 AD

Francesco Redi (born 1626) used an experiment to compare two competing ideas that seek to explain why maggots arise on rotting meat. He observed that meat covered to exclude flies did not develop maggots, while similar uncovered meat did. This is regarded as the first disproof of spontaneous generation, and was among the first uses of a controlled experiment.


1660-1675 AD

Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694) in this period used a microscope to study blood circulation in capillaries, described the nervous system as bundles of fibers connected to the brain by the spinal cord, detailed the anatomy of the silkworm, described the development of the chick in its egg, and published work on plant anatomy.


1673 AD

Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632 - 1723), a Dutch merchant and civic administrator who ground glass lenses as a hobby, used his microscopes to make discoveries in microbiology. He was the first scientist to describe protozoa and bacteria and to recognize that such microorganisms might play a role in fermentation. His treatise on the flea is a classic, proclaiming that fleas - like fish, dogs, and humans - are sexual beings. He also confirmed (1677) the discovery by Louis Dominicus Hamm of the existence of sperm cells.


Compiled from various sources, including:

Brock, Thomas D. 1961. Milestones in Microbiology. Science Tech Publishers. Madison, Wisconsin. Pp. 273.

Brock, Thomas D. 1990. The Emergence of Bacterial Genetics. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press. Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Pp. 346.

Bunch, Bryan and Hellemans, Alexander. 1993. The Timetables of Technology. Simon & Schuster. New York, New York. Pp. 490.

Hellemans, Alexander, and Bunch, Bryan. 1988. The Timetables of Science. Simon & Schuster. New York, New York. Pp. 660.


Go to next timeline: 1750 - 1900: The Miracle of Life and Death Appears Smaller . . . and Smaller

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