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Medieval Chinese Moved Huge Stones over Ice Paths
November 6, 2013

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Medieval Chinese engineers devised a method of moving massive stones using only water, new research suggests.

A report released by a team of modern engineers, headed by two Chinese professors and an American professor, has concluded that some of the tremendously heavy stones now found in Beijing's Forbidden City were transported nearly 50 miles over paths of water and ice, a method that required only a few dozen people.

Professors Jiang Li, Hoasheng Chen, and Howard Stone made their case based on a recent retranslation of a document written in 1618. The text contains a passage describing the transportation in 1557 of a 125-ton stone to the Forbidden City from a quarry over a distance of 48 miles during winter. To facilitate this, the text says, the workers dug wells at regular intervals along the route "to supply water for watering and running the sledge."

The "sledge" was a large wooden sled. The size of the stone would have crushed the wooden wheels available at the time, so the sled didn't have wheels. Instead, workers dragged the sled along a path of ice, and they dug the wells every so often in order to have fresh water bubble to the surface, making the ice path even slippier and increasing the friction, making the sled move faster. As a result, the professors calculated, the team of workers needed to move the 125-ton stone was no larger than 46, compared to the 340 people needed to drag the sled over solid ice and the 1,500 people needed to drag the sled over solid dirt.

Such an understanding of ice and friction at that time in history would have put Chinese engineers a few hundred years ahead of their Western counterparts, the professors asserted.

The report appears in the latest edition of the scholarly journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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