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I am interested in very early inventions that allowed energy to be stored and released after a delay even it's just a short time. With "invention" I mean a novelty that is the result of humans' intellectual creativity. Someting that cannot just be done like throwing a stone but requires ingenuity and/or experimentation. A bow is better. A fly wheel better still.

I am aware that it is unlikely to find a proven first use of such inventions. Still, I am interested in what history knows about it's early uses.

My current assumption is that the first invention to store energy was the fly wheel. And one of the first uses or probably THE first use of a fly wheel is pottery. One site states without providing sources.

The first potter’s wheel is believed to have come from Sumer in 3129 BC, although there is evidence that points to other places of origin. Precursors to the wheel started appearing as early as 4500 BC though, so an exact date is likely impossible.

Though the date 3129 BC seems questionable (how could it be determined so precisely?) the rough date and origin are confirmed by the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Handmade pottery has been found at Ur, in Mesopotamia [...] dating from a time soon after the Flood (about 3000 BCE), was wheelmade decorated pottery of a type usually called Al ’Ubaid.

  1. Are these sources correct and are there better ones?
  2. What about other regions of this world? E.g. the Chinese were famous for their pottery for a very long time and it only seems reasonable to assume that fly wheels were invented in Asia independently from teh middle east.
  3. Are there any other uses of fly wheels that date back that far?
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    $\begingroup$ This is way too vague: physically when you swing a stone you store energy in it during the swing to release at the end of the swing, if you throw a stone you store energy in the form of kinetic energy that is later released when (hopefully) hitting your target. So storing energy is as old as tools themselves. $\endgroup$ – paul23 Jan 11 at 5:46
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    $\begingroup$ Beavers have been building dams for quite awhile. Their purpose is probably not to store energy, but nevertheless, they do, and when a beaver dam breaks down the energy is released, sometimes spectacularly. Apparently beavers originated as a species ~33,000,000 years ago - when their dam building behavior began I don't know ... $\endgroup$ – davidbak Jan 11 at 16:12
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    $\begingroup$ There are a lot of frame-challenge answers. Did you originally mean storing and releasing mechanical energy? $\endgroup$ – Spencer Jan 11 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you, I am glad you ask because you are right. I guess there is at least something I can add to clarifiy this and that is to emphasize the word "invention". Maybe that is not as clear as thought it might be coming from the German language. With "invention" I mean a novelty that is the result of humans' intellectual creativity. Someting that cannot just be done like throwing a stone but requires ingenuity and/or experimentation. A bow is better. A fly wheel better still. $\endgroup$ – Jan Jan 11 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ Another aspect (I had in mind without being aware) is whether the main purpose of the invention is to store the energy so that it can become and became a "pattern" and be re-used in further inventions. Once I understand to build a bent tree snare will I not be a step closer to building a bow? $\endgroup$ – Jan Jan 11 at 19:07
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One early invention for storing energy was a basin above the level of the river. It was filled with water when the water in the river was high, and then, when the water in the river was low, it was allowed to flow to the fields from the basin. Such a basin could also be filled manually. Such devices were used in ancient Egypt, as a part of their irrigation system even before the "beginning of history" (by which many understand the invention of writing).

Another pre-historic device for storing energy, which is even older is a bow. It stores the energy when you draw it, to release it quickly when you shoot.

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    $\begingroup$ I came here to post an answer about the bow, but you beat me to it. The bent tree snare is likely older, but there probably isn't anything in the historical record. $\endgroup$ – Spencer Jan 10 at 18:35
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, the bow is a good and probably the most correct answer, as they date to at least 60,000 BCE. The water basin is decidedly Neolithic, maybe 3000 BCE. $\endgroup$ – fluffysheap Jan 11 at 9:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Spencer - I would expect figure 4 traps to be older than snares. No string is required, just sticks and a rock. $\endgroup$ – Don Branson Jan 11 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ @DonBranson smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/… $\endgroup$ – Spencer Jan 11 at 15:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Peter Cordes: the river in question has a name: it is Nile. It never runs so low that water itself becomes a problem. It is navigable year around. The problem is delivery of water to the fields. $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Jan 13 at 22:24
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This is probably not what you were thinking of but "the earliest invention that allowed energy to be stored and released after a delay even it's just a short time" was a stone.

I can store energy in it briefly by flinging it at your head (kinetic). I can store energy in it even longer by putting it on a cliff above your head (potential).

Stone based inventions might not be sexy but we did have an entire age named after them.

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    $\begingroup$ The concept in your second paragraph was heavily marketed by ACME inc. for the purpose of bird hunting $\endgroup$ – Hagen von Eitzen Jan 12 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ @HagenvonEitzen meep meep $\endgroup$ – candied_orange Jan 12 at 21:07
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Agriculture

The purpose of farming is to harness the freely available energy from the sun, and convert it into a form that can fuel the human body. Agriculture enabled significant food surpluses, which is simply a form of energy storage. Similar to how a flywheel stores mechanical energy which can be used later, food surpluses store chemical energy which can be used later. The invention of agriculture over 10,000 years ago solved an energy storage problem, allowing early humans to effectively store the abundant energy of the growing season for use at a later time when energy was not as plentiful.

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According to this page, charcoal was in use circa 3750 BCE. That's an energy storage medium, although perhaps not the class of energy-release you were thinking of.

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How about good-old fashioned pit traps? If 'stored energy' is something where you input work ahead of time and then it is expended at a later date for a use, a pit trap is a perfect example.

While digging the pit, you are removing a great deal of material, and effectively 'storing' gravitational potential energy in the difference between the height of the bottom of the pit, and the top. When an animal falls into the pit, you use that laboriously stored energy to kill it.

Of course, you then need to expend additional energy to drag out the carcass, and 'reset' the trap, the same way you would with a snare.

Putting a date on the earliest pit trap is likely impossible, but was > 50,000 years ago.

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  • $\begingroup$ can you provide a link to any history page which cites that approximate date? $\endgroup$ – Carl Witthoft Jan 11 at 13:29
  • $\begingroup$ In physics terms, it's a bit hard to argue that digging a pit stores gravitational potential energy in everything that's still at surface level. It actually creates a deeper potential well relative to the normal baseline. That's not really storing potential energy, and it's not the same energy that it took to dig the pit. A trap where something falls onto the prey, on other hand, would be a perfect example. $\endgroup$ – Peter Cordes Jan 13 at 12:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Peter Cordes Well, you’re expending energy to create that deeper potential well, and part of is used up when something falls in. Perhaps rather than saying that the energy is stored as potential energy, you could say that it is spent, and then the thing it is spent on does a finite amount of stuff in return — but that just sounds like “stored” with extra steps. $\endgroup$ – Daniel B Jan 13 at 18:07
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Tree limb. Before humans became ground bound, they used tree limbs to catapult themselves to the next tree. But seriously, probably a stone, then a stone attached to a stick, then a stone attached to a stick shot from a string attached to a stick. Do I get voted off the island? I just got here.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome on the HSM! Your last two sentences are unclear to me, sorry. Anyways your post looks acceptable. $\endgroup$ – peterh Jan 11 at 21:24
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I agree to candied_orange that it might be a stone, but for different reasons.

There still is a practice among nomadic people to heat stones in a fire [aka store energy] and then transfer them into a container (e.g. the fur of an animal filled with water) to cook/boil the contents [release the energy].

Here are two sources I could find:

Travel report from Mongolia

Nomadic recipe

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