Ancient civilizations like the Egyptians built enormous structures to wow the world with greatness, and it worked. However, the real wonder lies in the details; in the level of precision they reached without modern tools. Without rulers, set squares, or even tape measures — almost out of nowhere — ancient engineers seemed to jump entire historical epochs ahead of themselves. Looking back in time, a group of YouTubers examines the tools ancient engineers used to change the face of human civilization.
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What tools did the ancient Egyptians have to help build the Pyramids?
The question of how ancient Egyptians planned and built the Pyramids without the aid of modern measuring and guiding tools is an old and very fascinating question.
One interesting video on "How To Make Everything" sets out to answer this very question. The channel is dedicated to the discovery — or rediscovery — of how ancient civilizations might have stumbled into brilliant real-world solutions.
Like the video says, everything we use or have today is the product of a long line of innovation. At times we've slowed to a snail's pace, but only until we remember that we stand on the discoveries and inventions of our forebears. This is why to look at the history of tools is also to look at the evolution of ancestors like the Egyptians.
Pyramids: precision at a massive scale
The first pyramid in Egypt was built between 2630 and 2611 BCE; the largest in Giza was built around 2560 BCE. Standing roughly 140 meters tall, the Great Pyramid of Giza remained the tallest structure ever built for nearly 4,000 years, until the Lincoln Cathedral, in 1072 CE.
It is aligned to at near-perfect true North, within 1 degree of accuracy. Additionally, each of the four sides is equal with a margin of error in centimeters, and its base is level to within less than half an inch (1.25 cm).
This degree of precision and accuracy requires a firm understanding of measuring straight lines, parallel lines, squared edges, and levels.
Ancient Egyptians walked a smooth, straight line
One of the first things ancient Egyptians needed to build the Pyramids is a firm understanding of straight lines. But nature doesn't build in straight lines, so how did they do it?
Their solution was a string tie between two posts. When taut, this produces a wonderfully straight guide.
They marked the lines by dipping the string in chalk and coating it in ash, or other pigments. By snapping or twanging it, the dye scattered down to the surface, marking out a nice straight edge.
Egyptians aligned lines into parallel
The ancient Egyptians also used a tool called a "Marking Gauge," for parallel lines. This simple tool consisted of a stick with a marking spot at one end.
Attached to this was another piece of wood that slides back and forth along the stick to set a distance. Since screws probably weren't yet invented, this measuring element may have been locked in place using a wedge.
They could then mark out another parallel line using the string and dye once more. Rinse and repeat.
The trick to perpendiculars
While it's still unclear whether ancient Egyptians knew complex mathematical concepts like the Pythagorean theorem, it's interesting to think about how they might have produced accurate perpendicular lines. Of course, they could have simply "eyeballed" the angles, using two straight pieces of wood, they may have achieved greater accuracy with intersecting circles.
By tying a piece of charcoal to a fixed length of string, two circles could be marked out with their centers at a constant distance. Where the two circles intersect, anyone can draw a new line with string and dye, to produce a near-perfect, perpendicular line.
Egyptians measured perfect distances
This was relatively more simple than other plotting techniques already discussed. Ancient Egyptians used a unique unit of measure, called a Cubit.
A cubit is roughly the distance between the arm and the end of the middle finger. A template could be created using a cut piece of wood at a standard length.
Egyptians also used levels
Using a combination of the techniques mentioned above, ancient Egyptian craftsmen likely set squares from simple timber.
After some dedicated wood-work and glue, varying size for the customized jobs was relatively easy.
The set square is used to measure right angles, but it's also an important part of another ancient tool: the plumb bob.
This is easy to make — simply attaching a pointed weight of metal (lead or bronze), and tie it to the set square to create a simple, effective leveling measure that works both horizontally and vertically.
Gauges could be added to this for varying angles, to suit the architect and craftsman needs.
Of course, there's more: watch the video to see how these tools stacked up when marking out a theoretical block of stone, because the things that still astound modern engineers will never cease to inspire us with wonder.