Parthenon / Wikimedia Commons
By Marina Spanos / 11.25.2012
Modern society always seems to put itself above the ancient societies that preceeded it, but without their inventions, we wouldn’t be what we are today, and we certainly would not have what we have today. The ancient Greek civilisation flourished for about a thousand years, not as a unified country but rather as a loose association of city states, both on the mainland of Greece and elsewhere around the Mediterranean. The philosopher Plato described the states as being like a series of frogs sitting around a pond. Although the Greeks drew on the ideas of various earlier civilisations, they were the people who, more than any other, handed down to us the foundations of our democracy, our notions of ethics and justice, our science, our mathematics and our music. But perhaps their most amazing invention is the first known computer. This was a small box stuffed with cogs and moving parts all skilfully made and by turning a handle it would display the movements of planets to an astonishing degree of accuracy -in fact it was a planetarium. Here is a list of 25 of them. How many were you aware of?
The Gorgon’s head is a frequent numismatic icon (here with anchor on reverse) that may appear on a danake, 4th century BCE / Classical Numismatic Group, Wikimedia Commons
The Hellenic contribution to ship construction is huge. You’ve heard of the Argo, right? The Hellens were also some of the firsts who made long sea voyages and who build ships that could not be brought to shore, thus forcing them to find a way to tie their ships down when there was nothing to tie them to. Anchors of huge stones have been around since the Bronze Age, but the Hellens were the first to solve the problem in a technological manner. Most often these anchors–often referred to ‘teeth’ (ὀδὁντες, dentes) in Hellenic poetry–consisted of sacks or buckets which were filled with stones, although later versions were made of stone and already had the shape of anchors so well know today. Every ship had several anchors.
The alarm clock of Plato. Photo : Augusta Stylianou Artist, From “Ancient Greek Technology” exhibition at the Evagoras & Kathleen Lanitis Centre in Carob Mill Limassol
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato (428–348 BC) was most likely the first to possess an alarm clock. It was a water clock of some design that, when having counted to the desired time, played something with the sound of a water organ. Ctesibius (285–222 BC) had a device which would drop balls of some sort onto a metal plate at a specified time, thus waking up the sleeping party.
Schematics for automatic doors to be used in a temple with the aid of steam power. / Wikimedia Commons
Heron of Alexandria created a hydraulic system, based on steam power, which automatically opened the doors to an Alexandrian temple. The engine used air from a closed chamber heated by an altar fire to displace water from a sealed vessel; the water was collected and its weight, pulling on a rope, opened temple doors.
Torsion catapult used by Demetrius Poliorcatos / Wikimedia Commons
Accounts of Hellenic versions of the catapult date back to 399 BC. They often shot out arrow-shaped projectiles, not boulders, but the mechanism was very much the same as the later medieval catapults.
Startling Line for the Stadion footrace at Olympia / Wikimedia Commons
Cement is a binder, a substance that sets and hardens independently, and can bind other materials together. Although the word is Roman, the Hellens already had a version of it, adding limestone to a mixture of clay, water and sand. It was used from 100 BC onwards, and mostly in what is now the coast of Turkey.
Before the Romans came up with the hypocaust system, the Greeks, specifically the Minoans, first placed pipes under floors in their homes through which they passed warm water to keep the rooms and floors warm in the winter. / Wikimedia Commons
Although the Romans perfected the design, the ancient Hellens already had a system in place where a fire heated up air, which was then forced through pipes hidden under the floor. The air warmed up the floor and, in turn, the room. Slaves kept the fire burning, of course.
Tower of Winds / Wikimedia Commons
The ancient Tower of the Winds dates back to about 100 BC. It housed a water clock which was connected to eight sundials on the outside of the tower. The entire mechanism has since vanished, but the tower remains, including the depictions of the eight wind deities: Boreas (N), Kaikias (NE), Eurus (E), Apeliotes (SE), Notus (S), Livas (SW), Zephyrus (W), and Skiron (NW). I have seen the Tower of the Winds in person, and it’s beautiful. It’s also (one of the) first clock towers of the world.
Lydian electrum trite (4.71g, 13x10x4 mm). This coin type, made of a gold and silver alloy, was in all likelihood the world’s first, minted by King Alyattes in Sardis, Lydia, Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) / Wikimedia Commons
Long before the rule of the Hellens, we developed a trade system that relied on a token, not goods. Commodity money was born, but the Hellens were the first to develop coins of different sizes and materials and put a value on various trading goods.
Ancient Greek crane illustration / Wikimedia Commons
In the sixth century BC, the Hellens invented a way to lift the heavy stone blocks onto the emerging temple walls: a crane. Holes drilled into the stone suggest ropes were attached to the blocks, and pulled up to be fitted in place.
Like the catapult, crossbows emerged in ancient Hellas and were a favored weapon. The arrows they fired traveled far, were absolutely deadly, and the weapon was relatively easy to load. The earliest evidence for the crossbow in Europe dates back to the 5th century BC when the gastraphetes, an ancient Greek crossbow type, appeared. The device was described by the Greek author Heron of Alexandria in his work Belopoeica (“On Catapult-making”), which draws on an earlier account of his famous compatriot engineer Ctesibius (fl. 285–222 BC). Heron identifies the gastraphetes as the forerunner of the later catapult, which places its invention some unknown time prior to 420 BC.
Illustrated reconstruction of the Lighthouse of Alexandria / Wikimedia Commons
The famous lighthouse of Alexandria was constructed around 300 BC, by Sostratus of Cnidus. With a height around 400 ft (120 m), it stood as one of the tallest man-made structures on Earth for many centuries. It was one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The early lighthouses used wick lamps as a source of light. In the olden times the light beam could only travel a few miles.
Anaximander, who lived from 610 to 546 BC, was the first to create maps with the concept of latitude and longitude, and it were later Hellens Eratosthenes and Strabo who created maps of the entire known world at the time, which–granted–was not the known world as we know it today. Maps in western literature were first produced in 6200 B.C. Maps are one of the most ancient Greek inventions that are used today.
The so called Heron’s odometer was most probably an invention made by Archimedes. / Wikimedia Commons
An odometer–as car enthusiasts will most likely know–is an instrument that indicates distance traveled by a vehicle. In ancient Hellas, it was used to measure the distance between cities. Although the actual device was never recovered, some of the measurements were. They were so accurate that some form of technology had to be involved.
From the Ephesus terrace house / Wikimedia Commons
In the 400s BC, Athens began to develop highly extensive plumbing systems for baths and fountains, as well as for personal use within individual homes. Many houses in ancient Greece were equipped with closets or latrines that drained into a sewer beneath the street. They seemed to have been flushed by waste water. Some of the sewers were fitted with ventilating shafts.
c.2000 BCE, Creative Commons
The ancient Hellens were the first to have an automated sink with running water, so both hands could be washed at the same time. The ancient Greeks washed themselves with lumps of clay, had steam baths and rubbed their skin with oil, such as olive oil, which they then scraped off with an instrument called a “strigil”, along with any dirt. The Ancient Greeks recognised the value of bathing as an important part of their lifestyles. Writers such as Homer had their heroes bathe in warm water so as to regain their strength; it is perhaps notable that the mother of Achilles bathed him in order to gain his invincibility. Palaces have been uncovered throughout Greece with areas that are dedicated to bathing, spaces with ceramic bathtubs, as well as sophisticated drainage systems. Homer uses the word λοετρά, loetrá, “baths”, later λουτρά, loutrá, from the verb λούειν, loúein, to bathe. The same root finds an even earlier attestation on Linear B tablets, in the name of the River Lousios (“bathing” [river]), in Arcadia. Public baths are mentioned by the comedian Aristophanes as βαλανεία, balaneía (Sing.: βαλανείον, balaneíon, Latinized as balneum, a “balneary”).
Depiction of showers on vase / British Museum, London
The ancient Greeks were the first people to have showers. Their aqueducts and sewage systems made of lead pipes allowed water to be pumped both into and out of large communal shower rooms used by elites and common citizens alike. These rooms have been discovered at the site of the city Pergamum and can also be found represented in pottery of the era. The depictions are very similar to modern locker room shower, and even included bars to hang up clothing.
Temple A at Selinunte, Italy, was special. It was build around 480 BC. Selinunte was one of the most important of the Greek colonies in Sicily. There were five temples, but of only the ‘E’-temple, it is sure whom it was dedicated to: Hera. Who the A-temple was dedicated to is not clear, but it had a unique design feature: the first spiral staircase in history.
It was a children’s toy, designed by Heron of Alexandria. He called it an aeolipile; a cylinder, arranged to rotate on its axis, having oppositely bent or curved nozzles projecting from it. When the cylinder is pressurized, steam blows through the nozzles and the aeolipile spins around. It was the first steam-powered anything, and extraordinary in its own way.
Three stages in the evolution of the dioptra, from a simple horizontal sight, to a multi-angle measuring tool / Wikimedia Commons
The Hellenes were well aware that a building needed a solid foundation, and a city needed proper planning in order to stand safely for a long time. More on the latter below, but for both, it was incredibly important to pick out a good building site. In order to do this, the Hellenes devised many tools to test the soil, measure out the slope of the ground, and gather other valuable information before building their structures. It shows; much of what stood then, survives to this day, more or less intact.
Illustration of the Philo thermometer / Wikimedia Commons
Philo of Byzantium was a Hellenic Jewish philosopher who discovered that air expanded when heated.He attached a tube to a hollow sphere and extended it over a jug of water. When the device was in the sun, air expanded out of the sphere and into the water, creating bubbles. When he put the device in the shade, nothing happened. Around that same time (+/- 50 AD) Heron of Alexandra worked on the first thermometer for medicine.
Vase depiction of Aphrodite and Erotes with umbrella / British Museum, London
They were made from larger bones, wood or plant leaves, and used to block rain or sun. While they certainly were not up to par with modern umbrella’s, they served their purpose well. Depictions dating back to the late 4th century BC display umbrellas that could apparently open and close. Ancient Greek culture considered it a mark of effeminacy if a man carries one. Its religious significance can be seen in depictions highlighting the feast of Athene Sciras and those of Dionysus. Interestingly, a marked paradox reveals that Athenian women carried umbrellas as a mark of subservience! The umbrellas’ odyssey seemed to have meandered towards Rome thereafter.
Piraeus’ Hippodamian grid / Wikimedia Commons
The Greek Hippodamus (c. 407 BC) has been dubbed the “Father of City Planning” for his design of Miletus; Alexander commissioned him to lay out his new city of Alexandria, the grandest example of idealized urban planning of the ancient Mediterranean world, where the city’s regularity was facilitated by its level site near a mouth of the Nile. The Hippodamian, or grid plan, was the basis for subsequent Greek and Roman cities. Aristotle’s critique and indeed ridicule of Hippodamus, is perhaps the first known example of a criticism of urban planning.
Illustration of Heron’s vending machine / Wikimedia Commons
The first vending machine was a construction of Heron) of Alexandria (c. 10–70 AD). He was an ancient Greek mathematician and engineer who was active in his native city of Alexandria, Roman Egypt. He is considered the greatest experimenter of antiquity and his work is representative of the Hellenistic scientific tradition. His invention of the vending machine became really popular when a coin was introduced via a slot on the top of the machine, and a set amount of holy water was dispensed. This was included in his list of inventions in his book, “Mechanics and Optics”. When the coin was deposited, it fell upon a pan attached to a lever. The lever opened up a valve which let some water flow out. The pan continued to tilt with the weight of the coin until it fell off, at which point a counter-weight would snap the lever back up and turn off the valve.
The watermill, the first machine harnessing natural forces (apart from the sail) and as such holding a special place in the history of technology, was invented by Greek engineers sometimebetween the 3rd and 1st centuries BC. Here a Roman gristmill as described by Vitruvius. / Wikimedia Commons
Even back in the day, power was needed to set mechanisms to work. The earliest evidence of a water-driven wheel is the Perachora wheel (3rd c. BC), in Greece. The earliest written reference is in the technical treatises Pneumatica and Parasceuastica of the Greek engineer Philo of Byzantium (ca. 280−220 BC). The British historian of technology M.J.T. Lewis has shown that those portions of Philo of Byzantium’s mechanical treatise which describe water wheels and which have been previously regarded as later Arabic interpolations, actually date back to the Greek 3rd century BC original. The sakia gear is, already fully developed, for the first time attested in a 2nd century BC Hellenistic wall painting in Ptolemaic Egypt. Lewis assigns the date of the invention of the horizontal-wheeled mill to the Greek colony of Byzantium in the first half of 3rd century BC, and that of the vertical-wheeled mill to Ptolemaic Alexandria around 240 BC. The Greek geographer Strabon reports in his Geography a water-powered grain-mill to have existed near the palace of king Mithradates VI Eupator at Cabira, Asia Minor, before 71 BC.
The ancient wheelbarrow of the Greeks. / Wikimedia Commons
It seems like something someone in the stone age would have come up with, but it wasn’t. The wheelbarrow existed in ancient Greece in the form of a one-wheel cart. Two building material inventories for 408/407 and 407/406 B.C. from the temple of Eleusis list, among other machines and tools. Although evidence for the wheelbarrow in ancient farming and mining is absent, it is surmised that wheelbarrows were not uncommon on Greek construction sites for carrying moderately light loads.
Originally published by Dr. Massimo Pigliucci at Hellasfrappe under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.