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Hatching a Scheme

Posted on 5/28/2019 12:00:00 AM in Travel Trivia

While we’re not sure they deserve more fame than the pyramids, Egypt’s ingenious egg-incubating ovens (shown here in a historical etching) stymied admiring Europeans for hundreds of years.

Question: Egyptians fooled Aristotle into thinking that they produced what commodity by magic?

Answer: Eggs

Aristotle was no slouch. And being the best known philosopher in the West meant that people took his opinion seriously. So when he wrote that Egyptians were able to make eggs “hatch spontaneously” from “dung heaps,” many readers in the ancient world accepted his wisdom as fact. History does not record whether or not the Egyptian farmers he described got a good laugh out of this, but they were surely pleased that they had managed to keep their real secret: they had invented the world’s first egg incubators.

Two centuries after Aristotle, historian Diodorus Siculus got closer to the truth, marveling that Egyptians “raised eggs by their own hands, by virtue of a skill peculiar to them.” The peculiar skill was the building of warming ovens made of mud and designed to replicate the hot, moist conditions beneath the bum of a brooding hen. The odds of success were increased by training workers to know when to turn the eggs—a feat accomplished by gently rolling each egg across a farmer’s closed eye. Because eggs were removed from nests as soon as they were laid, the hens could return to laying more eggs nearly immediately, instead of brooding until the chicks hatched. This sped up the number of eggs so much that a farmer could hatch thousands of chicks in a few weeks.

Pilgrimages were made by those eager to witness this “miracle,” including a 14th-century Irish friar who wrote that “chickens are generated by fire” without hens being involved. A 17th-century French writer didn’t believe that, and when he finally got a better look at the ovens, he declared that they should be as famous as the pyramids. But Egyptians carefully guarded how the ovens worked, so Europeans failed to approximate the result: their climates at home required higher heat, which risked killing the chicks, and more fuel, which was expensive. It wasn’t until 1897 that the modern egg incubator (regulated with electric power) was born and the rest of the world could keep up with Egypt.

Though Egypt itself now uses modern incubators for the most part, more than 200 mud-oven incubators remain in use, a 2,000-year-old tradition still feeding families today.

They Did It First: 11 More Lasting Egyptian Inventions

  • A 4,000-year-old Egyptian palace boasts the world’s first door lock: a wooden pin and bolt set that could be unlocked with a brush-like wooden key whose bristles matched the pin holes in the lock.

  • Because tooth decay was rampant, Egyptians invented the first breath mint, a chewable concoction of cinnamon, frankincense, and myrrh.

  • Egyptian toothpaste was more of a powder than a cream, a combination of dried iris, pepper grains, rock salt, and generous amounts of mint for the cool flavor familiar even now.

  • While the rest of the world used clay, stone, wood, and animal skin as writing surfaces, Egypt created papyrus, the first equivalent to sheets of paper; papyrus became a staple of the ancient world from Rome to Europe.

  • To write on the papyrus, the first black ink was created from soot, vegetable gum, and beeswax, which left indelible impressions but was thicker than what we use now.

  • Hitching a team of oxen to a plow revolutionized agriculture in Egypt—and the rest of world, with farmers in developing countries and rural areas around the globe using ox-drawn plows to this day.

  • Egypt created the first solar-based 365-day calendar, but they missed the leap day phenomenon. While Ptolemy II posed the correction in 238 BCE, it wasn’t implemented until Augustus ruled over 250 years later.

  • The Egyptians created not one but two kinds of early clocks: obelisk-based sun clocks that used the movement of shadow to measure time in daylight hours, and water clocks, where the spacing of droplets predicted the time even after dark.

  • Skilled surgery set the Egyptians apart, with papyrus “textbooks” listing scalpels, forceps, lancets, probes, bandages, swabs, and instructions for procedures like stitches and cauterizing a wound.

  • To avoid attracting lice and other bugs, Egyptians shaved their heads, but to forestall sunburn and sunstroke, they wore handmade wigs, often perfumed.

  • The first eyeliner was kohl, made of soot and minerals, and it was worn with green eyeshadow made by grinding malachite into the powder.

Discover how the ancient and modern worlds blend together when you visit Egypt on your Suez Canal Crossing: Israel, Egypt, Jordan & the Red Sea Small Ship Adventure.

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