When it comes to Greek Antiquity, popular imagination can usually be summed up in a few words: arts, literature, philosophy; a couple of mathematical theorems, perhaps, or a set of strange, entertaining –if not outright hair-raising– myths; impeccably athletic adolescents immortalized on bright marble. What escapes most people, though, is the height of technological achievements and innovations of the Greeks, spanning all areas of human activity in their time. The spirit of exploration and constant improvement in sciences and engineering led to significant inventions that, even though they sound quite modern, are actually much older than we think.
10. Eupalinian Aqueduct
In the 6th century BC, Polycrates, tyrant of Samos, catered for the water supply of its island’s capital (today’s Pythagoreion) by calling architect Eupalinos of Megara to oversee the creation of an aqueduct (Herodotus, Book III.60). The aqueduct was to be underground, so that it would be protected from enemy attacks –and it had to be built fast! Eupalinos, therefore, proceeded by opening tunnels from both sides of Mount Kastro. This was the first time in history when such a process was based on a geometrically-based approach, using a number of principles that would be codified a few centuries later by the famous mathematician Eucleides. However, Eupalinos’ estimations were so accurate that the two tunnels did actually meet midway. Two tunnels were dug into the rock: the one created initially has an aperture of about eight feet on each side; the second, which is narrower, was opened below the main one with the help of vertical shafts: this was necessary because the mouth of the spring supplying the water dropped by a few yards with time. The tunnel is 1,133 yards long and part of it is open to the public today.
‘War is the father of all’, Heraclitus of Ephesus used to say –and Greeks were masters at creating war devices. The first flame-throwing machine in history was used during the Peloponnesian War: Thucydides (Book IV.100) describes how the Boeotians used such a contraption during the battle of Delium in order to blow –aided by a huge bellows– burning coals, brimstone, and pitch against the fortifications of Athenians, built mainly of wood, and to drive away the attacking army.
Another type of flame-thrower was developed by the architect Apollodorus of Damascus (mostly known as ‘Trajan’s architect’), as described in his work ‘Poliorketica’ (i.e., ‘On Siege [Devices]’). The device was similar, from a constructional point of view, to the one used by the Boeotians; however, it concerned the destruction of stone walls. It worked as follows: fire, produced by the combustion of carbon dust, caused overheating of the walls; the subsequent use of an acid mixture (usually vinegar or urine) at the point of thermal damage created cracks and allowed penetration into the enemy city. Apollodorus’ machine was also used by the Byzantines up to the 10th and early-11th centuries AD.
8. Steam Cannon
Besides discovering and describing a great number of mathematical and physics principles, Archimedes became actively involved in the defense of his hometown of Syracuse, Sicily when it was besieged by the Romans during the Second Punic War. In fact, it was Archimedes’ inventions that delayed the fall of the city by a couple of years –even though the Roman army arrived well-prepared for the task.
Archimedes’ steam cannon was the first weapon worldwide which functioned with steam compression. It consisted, roughly, of a large metal tube capped at one end and placed in a furnace; once the tube reached a certain temperature, it was loaded with a small amount of water that was rapidly transformed into steam with the ability to launch a 50-lb projectile (pre-loaded from the other end) at about 1,200 yards. Leonardo da Vinci discovered a description of the weapon in Vitruvius’ ‘De Architectura’ and made its first constructional drawings, naming it ‘architonnerre’. The concept was tested initially by Mythbusters who declared the weapon non-functional; however, a second small-scale test by MIT scientists proved it was actually quite lethal, with an estimated muzzle velocity of 630 mph for a one-pound projectile.
7. Archimedes’ Claw
Archimedes’ most impressive defensive war machine was the Claw (a.k.a. ‘iron hand’) with which the Syracusians managed to destroy attacking ships from on top of the city walls. The machine consisted of a jointed beam based on a rotating vertical beam or platform: at one end of the beam was a grappling hook hovering by chain; at the other end, there was a sliding counterweight. The hook was thrown against ships approaching the wall and, after catching them, the operators released the rope balancing the counterweight (using a special lever, the ‘katakleis’) which descended to the ground; the end with the hook ascended, hence overthrowing the enemy ship, or elevating it and crushing it against the rocks. The Roman ships were no tiny playthings either: they were quinqueremes, each weighing up to a hundred tons.
When not used, the Claw was laid alongside the wall, so as not to be visible. According to Plutarch, “if [the Romans] did but see a little rope or a piece of wood from the wall,” they fled in terror –making their leader “desist from conflicts and assaults, putting all his hope in a long siege.”
6. Vaginal Speculum
Ancient Greeks were not exclusively devoted to the works of war, of course. They also studied and developed medicine, the science of life, and this is attested not only by the writings of Hippocrates, ‘father of medicine’, but also by the numerous remnants of medical and surgical tools that were found in various excavation sites. Scalpels, hooks, forcipes, drills, catheters, and more –a whole armory of instruments made of iron, copper, or copper alloys, following the prescriptions of notable doctors and medical writers.
One of the most amazing findings was made at the archaeological site of Dion, a sacred place of the ancient Macedonians on the foothills of Mount Olympus. A gynecological instrument, known as a ‘colposcope’ (from ‘colpos’ =vagina, and ‘skope?’ =to look carefully at), shows just how advanced Greek medical technology was. Made around the 2nd century BC, it consists of fifteen separate parts, and it works like a modern ivalve vaginal speculum, with its two blades opened and secured in place by a screw mechanism –the only difference being that it is made of metal instead of plastic.
5. Philo’s Automatic Maid
Philo of Byzantium (a.k.a. Philo the Mechanic) was born in the 3rd century BC near the Black Sea, but he soon moved to Alexandria, Egypt –the great intellectual center of the Hellenistic era. He was an accomplished mathematician, theoretical and practical engineer, and wrote a large treatise on a number of topics related to engineering, of which only a few books survived.
Philo set an early starting point in the science of robotics by creating his automatic servant: she would pour wine from a jug into a cup, then mixing it with water –as the ancient Greeks used to drink. Two air-tight containers inside her body, each penetrated by an air tube, supplied the fluids; the pressure of incoming air, regulated by an ingenious mechanism, forced the outpour through another set of pipes fitted at the bottom of the containers. The mechanism consisted of two pipes joined at the shoulder with the maid’s left arm and open palm where the cup was placed. The gradual filling of the cup moved the arm which, subsequently, slid along the pipes, thus opening or closing a hole that allowed the passage of air into the containers to which the pipes were connected.
4. Piston Force Pump
One of the most prolific inventors of Hellenistic times was Ctesibius of Alexandria who lived during the 3rd century BC. While he’s most known for his water clock –an apparatus already used in courts, but which he greatly improved– his work on pneumatics and hydraulics yielded many marvelous applications. The ‘Ctesibius pump’ is a hand-operated pressure pump that used air pressure to raise water within a system of two cylinders, then forcing it out. The pump worked with levers moved from the outside: the levers were connected with non-return valves (pistons) that sealed perfectly at the inside of each cylinder. On the upstroke, vacuum and suction of the water were produced; on the downstroke, water was sent up through the second pipe, causing its continuous outflow with force.
The design was simple and effective –this was, exactly, the principle on which 18th-century double water pumps were based. Quite ironically, Ctesibius’ writings were lost at the great fire of the Library of Alexandria, and our only source of knowledge about his inventions comes from the books of other engineers, such as Vitruvius, who greatly admired the Alexandrine inventor.
3. Hydraulic Organ (Hydraulis)
Ctesibius loved music, and he employed the principles he’d discovered, combined with a number of variations of his other inventions in order to construct an innovative musical instrument that he called ‘hydraulis’ –literally, a pipe organ working with water (‘hydro-’). In reality, the hydraulis was a pneumatic instrument; it converted the dynamic energy of water into air pressure that was produced and moved along thanks to a series of levers that regulated the amount and pressure of air driven into the pipes. A further improvement was the substitution of levers with keys, making it the world’s first keyboard instrument; the keys were so well-balanced that they could be played with a light touch. Besides the player, a second person was needed to work the bellows that supplied the instrument with air.
The instrument produced such a clear and loud sound that it soon made its way into amphitheaters and circuses; in the Byzantine era, it came to symbolize imperial grandeur. In 757 AD, a hydraulis was offered as a gift to the father of the future emperor Charlemagne, thus becoming the predecessor of the modern (west) church organ.
One of the greatest scientific minds in Hellenistic Alexandria was Hero, who studied thoroughly the works and writing of Ctesibius on compressed air and its uses in pumps, drawing on them to improve the inventions of the latter and also to construct a series of amazing engines of his own. In his best-known book, ‘Pneumatica’, he describes the first steam-engine in history (dubbed “Hero’s engine”) that is, in fact, very simple in design.
Water is heated in a vessel; the steam travels upwards through a pair of pipes placed at each side serving as the pivots for a hollow sphere, arranged to rotate on its axis. Two oppositely bent nozzles project from the sphere and steam is expelled through them, producing torque which makes the sphere rotate. Alternatively, the sphere (or cylinder) may itself serve as the boiler, thus simplifying the whole process. Hero used this principle to develop a number of other inventions, such as his famous dancing figures and miniature theater plays (automata).
1. The Antikythera Mechanism
No bigger than a modern laptop, the world’s first computer was discovered, along with other spectacular artifacts, off the island of Antikythera, southern Peloponnese, when a team of sponge divers came across a Roman shipwreck. The object, much corroded by the sea, was made of bronze, probably between 150-100 BC. It took archaeologists several months to notice a tiny gear-wheel, as well as inscriptions bearing astronomical terms. The most obvious explanation was that they’d found an astrolabe; closer examinations through the years, assisted by state-of-the-art tools and methods, revealed that it was a most sophisticated astronomical instrument indeed.
The Antikythera mechanism consisted of more than 30 gear-wheels of varied sizes, rotating on 10 different rods (axes). The gears were used to perform various calculations, depending on their rotation periods. Ancient astronomers would thus be able to track the position and phase of the Moon, predict solar and lunar eclipses, and calculate dates according to a number of calendars (the luni-solar calendar, the Metonic cycle, the Callippic cycle). There was also a 365-days calendar that could be corrected by one day every four years; another dial showed the Sun’s and the Moon’s position on the zodiac cycle, while others were used to track the movements of Venus, Mercury, Mars, and other planets.