Triumph of the Innovation Economy – Part 2

by Rowan Gibson

What can the Ancient Egyptians teach us about innovation? How did the creativity of this great civilization help them build such a mighty and enduring empire? And how do some of their remarkable inventions still impact our lives today?

Human Creativity and the History of the World

PART 2

In Part 1 of this series of articles, I argued that innovation is not just the latest management fad or business buzzword. Rather, it is – and always has been – the fundamental driver of human progress.

The entire history of the world is a history of creativity, invention, and innovation. I invite you to join me as I continue our short journey through time in an effort to trace the history of innovation.

In Part 1, we got a glimpse of the remarkable innovation power of Earth’s earliest cultures and civilizations – the Natufians, the Ubaidians, and the Sumerians. The impact of their innovations on the rest of human history – and on our lives today – cannot be overstated.

In this next article in the series, we will turn our attention to the giant and highly innovative world power that followed them – Ancient Egypt. If you‘ve been to the movies recently, you may have seen Exodus, the epic bible-based drama with its stunning cinematic depictions of Egypt’s former glory. Ever wondered where all that grandeur and economic power actually came from?

Turning innovation power into economic power

One only has to stand in the sun and stare up at the Great Pyramid of Giza, marveling at how one of our earliest civilizations could ever manage to accomplish such a monumental and enduring feat of architectural engineering, to get a sense of the formidable innovation power of the ancient Egyptians.

This sophisticated society, which thrived for over three thousand years, was outstanding among the first major world powers. It introduced architecture of a whole new scale and grandeur, including extravagant temples, pyramids and obelisks which were designed and constructed in ways that are still a mystery to us today, given the relatively simple tools and building technologies which were available at the time. We do know that the ancient Egyptians invented the ramp and must have had wooden levers of some kind, enabling them to move, raise and position otherwise impossibly heavy stones – and even whole obelisks made of red granite that weighed as much as 120 tons.

Of course, most of ancient Egypt’s economic wealth came from agriculture, and thus the majority of the population was employed in some form of farming, cultivation, or animal husbandry. Egypt’s competitive advantage in the region came not just from the Nile River, with its dependable annual floods and rich fertile soil, but also from the ingenious techniques its people devised for capturing the full value of this asset.

For example, they perfected the art of irrigation, capturing the Nile’s flood waters in specially dug basins, and then diverting them to their fields using an elaborate system of canals (one was 20 km long!), complete with mud dams and dikes to control the water supply. To anticipate the seasonal flood, and to try to predict its volume, they created a flood gauge called the Nilometer with which they could monitor the day-to-day water level of the river in various parts of the country.

To irrigate crops during the dry summer months, farmers used an innovative water-lifting device called a shaduf – basically a long balancing pole with a weight on one end and a bucket on the other – to draw water from the river for use on their fields. The ancient Egyptians also revolutionized agriculture with their concept of the oxen-drawn plow, which meant that soil cultivation was quicker and easier for them (and more effective because they could dig deeper into the ground) than for their neighboring societies, where farmers were still trying to loosen the hardened surface of the soil with a hand-held hoe. This breakthrough became standard farming practice around the world for thousands of years.

Grain was not the only valuable product of the economy. Ancient Egypt was also home to a variety of other industries – including carpentry, weaving, pottery, brewing, brickmaking, stonemasonry, mining, glass production, metalworking, and jewelry making. The mastery and creative advancement of these crafts helped to build substantial international trade with surrounding countries, where Egypt’s valuable goods were often exchanged for horses, cattle, copper, silver, iron, ivory, spices, oils, ebony and cedar.

Masters of innovation excellence

Naturally, the major trading route was the Nile River itself, and the Egyptians utilized it well. In fact, they became famous for their shipbuilding skills. When one 4500-year-old vessel – the so-called Khufu ship – was discovered in the 1970s buried at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza, it revealed the actual extent of these skills. First, this remarkable boat is 143 ft (43.6m) in length. By comparison, the Mayflower was only 100 ft (30.48 m) long, and the longest Viking boat ever found was around 98.5 ft (30m). Second, its construction indicates that it was built for both water and land travel. The vessel was assembled from wooden planks with mortise and tenon joints, which were bound together with ropes, rather than being fastened with nails.

This meant the Egyptians could disassemble the boat and carry it in pieces across land, then put it back together when they found the appropriate waterway. Once in the water, the ropes would shrink and the wood would expand, thus tightly and securely sealing the planks. One ancient record tells us that the Egyptians could assemble a huge cargo ship almost 100 ft (30.5m) long and 50 ft (15.25m) wide in just 17 days. They also constructed some of the earliest sailboats, using rope trusses to stiffen the central beam. On one occasion, Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt’s first female pharaoh, commissioned a fleet of five 70 ft (21.3m) long sailing ships, each with 30 rowers, for a trade expedition from the Red Sea to the Horn of Africa.

Undoubtedly, one of ancient Egypt’s greatest inventions, and certainly its greatest export, was papyrus, which was made from beaten strips of Cyperus papyrus reeds that grew abundantly along the banks of the Nile. Actually, the thin paper-like writing material they mass-produced was just one of their many uses for the papyrus plant. It was also employed in the construction of boats, woven into rope, baskets, mats, mattresses and sandals, and even eaten by commoners. Papyrus sheets represented the perfect medium for recording, storing and distributing verbal and visual information in the ancient world, which explains why this product became such a huge cultural and commercial success, and why the Egyptians kept its manufacturing method secret to ensure they could retain a monopoly on it (which they did for several millennia until it was finally rivalled by parchment, and later by the Chinese invention of paper).

The prevalence of papyrus and of written communication led to the growth of a highly respected profession – that of the scribe. Generally the sons of wealthy parents (only about 1% of the population was literate), scribes were people who were employed each working day as writers and copiers of documents by hand, and as the readers and principal archivists of all important business, legal, administrative, historical and sacred texts.

In many ways, they were the early equivalent of the “knowledge workers”, “white-collar workers”, or “office workers” of modern times, serving as the forerunners for typists, secretaries, accountants, lawyers, librarians, public servants and journalists. It was this rapidly-growing profession that also created the whole notion of “office supplies”. For a start, in addition to papyrus, the scribes also needed black ink, which the Egyptians invented by mixing soot with vegetable gum and beeswax. This ink, which they learned to produce in other colors, too, was so effective that many of those ancient scrolls are still readable today, over five thousand years later. Of course, the scribes also needed writing implements. This led to the invention of the Kalamos – a reed pen with a split nib – which was made in a variety of thicknesses for different forms of calligraphy. Other scribal tools included inkwells, brushes and palates.

To help them measure and manage time, the Egyptians invented two types of clocks. The first was a sundial. They simply used the moving shadows of their obelisks to indicate the basic time of the day. The second was a water clock, a stone vessel which was filled up with water that gradually leaked out in drops at a constant rate from a small hole in the bottom, allowing them to measure the passage of each “hour” as the water level dropped to each consistently spaced marking on the stone. This device enabled them to read the time both day and night, which was especially important to the temple priests who needed to perform their nightly duties at the right hour.

In addition to these clocks for daily use, the Egyptians also invented the solar 365-day calendar, divided into 12 months, which was based on the flood cycle of the Nile and designed to help farmers effectively plan their irrigation (the calendar’s three seasons were flooding, growing and harvest).

The pioneers of hygiene and beauty

Ancient Egyptians developed a fanaticism for hygiene and beauty. They made soap from animal fat mixed with chalk, and used it when bathing in the Nile. They applied perfumes, aromatic oils and ointments as early forms of deodorants, sunscreens and skincare products. They also invented beauty cosmetics, including eye makeup and other facial paints and pastes, which they wore on special occasions along with very ornate jewelry (and even the world’s first high heels) to depict their social rank.

In addition, they introduced the barbering profession and kept up with changing hairstyle fashions, sometimes wearing their hair to the shoulders, and at other times cropping it short, or shaving their heads completely. They used combs, curlers, hairpins, and hand-held metal mirrors, as well as remedies against hair loss, and henna mixed with coloring agents to dye grey hair. They also invented the first wigs and fake beards, which were worn by some members of their elite to distinguish themselves from the lower social classes. Men generally shaved their facial hair, using the world’s first razors – sharp blades of stone or copper with wooden handles. Some ancient Egyptians, certainly the priests, seem to have regularly shaved their entire bodies from head to toe.

They were also fussy about dental care, and invented the first toothbrushes – basically wooden twigs with frayed ends – along with the first toothpaste, toothpicks and even breath mints. The world’s first known dentist was a man named Hesi-Re (Hesy-Ra, or Hesira), a high ranking official and “overseer of the royal scribes” during the reign of Pharoah Dosjer, whose tombstone bears the inscription “Doctor of the Tooth”, “Greatest of the teeth” or “Chief of the toothers”.  He is credited as the first to recognize periodontal disease (gum disease), and evidence suggests that the ancient Egyptians practiced dental surgery and prosthetics (replacing lost teeth with artificial ones carved from shell which were attached to the others with gold wire).

It is well-known today, just as it was back then, that the ancient Egyptians’ medical knowledge and practices were extremely advanced compared with neighboring societies. Their physicians were formally educated and specialized on certain body parts and ailments. One of the oldest medical documents ever discovered is an ancient Egyptian medical text called the Edwin Smith Papyrus, which describes all manner of common injuries, wounds, fractures, dislocations and even tumors, as well as attempting to describe and analyze the human brain (the beginnings of neurosurgery). It also outlines surgical techniques and materials for treating medical problems, including plasters, stitches, bandages, swabs, lint, cauterization, and methods for resetting broken bones. Visitors to the Cairo museum can see some of the actual surgical instruments which were used in ancient Egypt, including scissors, scalpels, lancets, hooks, probes, pincers, copper needles, and forceps.

In spite of all this, life expectancy in ancient Egypt was still short by modern standards. 30% of their babies died at birth. 20% of their children died before their fifth birthday. And those that made it to adulthood couldn’t expect to live much longer than thirty or forty years in total. But at least people came up with ways to make their limited lifespans more enjoyable. For example, the Egyptians organized numerous feasts, festivals and religious celebrations with entertaining music and dance. They developed a wide range of musical instruments including flutes, pipes, early trumpets and oboes, harps, bells, cymbals, tambourines, and drums. They invented a variety of board games and ball games (at a site near Cairo, archaeologists actually discovered an ancient “bowling alley”) – and engaged in sports like wrestling, hunting and boating. It also says something about ancient Egyptian society that they are believed to have invented the world’s first condoms, which were made of linen.

Looking back at what made the ancient Egyptians such a rich and successful civilization for thousands of years, one would simply have to conclude that their long-term economic power was a direct result of their innovation power.

However, history also teaches us that no empire lasts forever.  What was to happen when ancient Egypt’s economic and innovation power eventually waned? Would human creativity continue to drive human progress? What can we learn from subsequent world powers – in particular the classical civilizations of antiquity? Find out in the next article in this series.

Continued in Part 3 -7 of this series – find series here

© Rowan Gibson 2015. All rights reserved.

image credits: barnesandnoble.com; commons.wikimedia.org; wikipedia.org; wikispaces.com; Berthold Werner; wikipedia.org; wikipedia.org; globalegyptianmuseum.org; egyking.info; historymuseum.ca; historyofthings.com

Rowan Gibson’s brand new book The Four lenses of Innovation examines the thinking patterns or perspectives that have been catalysts for breakthrough innovation throughout human history, and shows you how to use these perspectives to infuse creativity into your own organization. Order your copy right here.


Rowan Gibson (rg@rowangibson.com) is recognized as one of the world’s foremost thought leaders on innovation. He is the internationally bestselling author of 3 major books, an award-winning keynote speaker in 60 countries, and a cofounder of Innovation Excellence. His new book is The Four lenses of Innovation. On Twitter he is @RowanGibson.