Some of the ancient inventions that laid foundations for modern technology


Greek inventors and scientists are fathers of many things and topics we know today. Four such inventors are Archimedes, Philon, Heron and Ctesibius. Their inventions were not only ahead of their time but also are the foundation of today's technology and sciences.

Heron of Alexandria(10-70 AD).
Ctesibius of Alexandria(285-222BC).
Archimedes of Syracuse (287-212 BC).
Philon of Byzantium (280-220 BC).

Though these four splendid men were born and bred in different ages and places, they were all united by their craft. Passion of learning. These four inventors gave ancient world some of the luxuries that we experience in 21st century. What are they ? Let's take a look.

Starting off with Philon.

Inventions of Philon

Philo Mechanicus, as called by the Greeks of his time, had an amazing grasp over the tedious subject of Mechanics. He wrote about missiles, pneumatic weapons and water mills in his works in 3rd century BC. As if this wasn't enough, Philo went on to invent two things, one which made air travel possible and other was a basis of artificial intelligence machines today.

Philo's Gimbal : A party trick had the world spinning around it. Philo invented a cube, with an ink pot inside it. This cube, no matter rotated in any angle, offered the writer to dip his pen into ink. This sounds extremely mundane but this was a gyroscope in making. Gyroscopes are widely used in different machines and vehicles today to defy gravity. Space travel and air travel would never be possible without gyros. And to think that such a thing was invented in 3rd century BC in a party is simply awe-inspiring.

Humanity's first operating robot : It is essential for a robot to operate itself according to it's design. To accomplish such task a robot would need complex programming and a freaking amount of nuts and gears. Or does it? Philon made world's first self-operating robot servant. This servant did a trivial but seemingly magical task of pouring wine into the cups of guests. Ancient world was drunk with joy. The weight of the wine cup lowered the statue-looking robot maid's hand which then triggers complex network of gears and tubes to pour wine from the other hand. A very impressive invention indeed.

Thus, Philo Mechanicus made some incorrigible contributions to the field of mechanics.

Inventions by Ctesibius

Now moving on to Ctesibius of Alexandria, father of Pneumatics. Pneumatic machines are powered by compressed air. Compressed air in 3rd century BC! He also had a good taste in music, so he went on to invent pipe organ, which in turn laid a foundation for piano. He initially took upon the family business and worked as a barber. He was known best for his Clepsydra( water clock). This man have given the world time ! His clock was followed for 1800 years, until 17th century, when pendulum as invented.

Clepsydra : an immensely accurate clock that solely worked on water flow rate. A constant supply of water is given to a head tank which falls into a lower tank, fitted with a siphon. This simple yet effective design made sure that there's always a constant continuous flow of water which would show time on a dial. Guess what ? It could work as a calendar too.

But water clocks couldn't make our genius "father of pneumatic". So he invented 'compressed air portable fire engine'.

" Fire engine" : This man invented jets and siphon. Without him apartments and skyscrapers would not have been possible because of the water transport problem. But with huge buildings come huge responsibilities. Fire was a very common disaster in careless ancient world. A very simple design, where pistons force water out through a jet by compressed air. In fact that is pretty much how modern hoses work too. He gave humans courage to build a fire fighting squad and a 'fire fighting engine'.
Truly a father of pneumatics and modern civilization.

Inventions by Heron of Alexandria

Now it's time for Hero of Alexandria to shine. Heron of Alexandria. He was a Greek by birth but his contributions went mostly to Romans. He designed the "Hero engine", an ancient steam engine. This steam engine could have been more efficient than that one built by James Watt.

Aeoliphile: A device which runs by air pressure is called Aeoliphile. Hero's engine worked on a simple principle. A huge air-tight vessel filled with water is heated, and the steam comes out through two small thin capillaries and enters a globe. This globe has four vents. The steam comes out with an immense pressure at a time from all four vents, causing the globe to rotate. This rotates at an astonishing 1500 rpm.
This splendid invention of Heron was used to drag water from wells. But with an open mind, Greeks could have applied it in locomotion, propelling us further into future.

But our Heron was a man of religion. He was asked by a Greek temple to devise an instrument which can serve holy water at it's own. So our Hero created a 'vending machine'.

Vending machine : When the ardent devotees dropped a coin inside a jar, it tilts a plate covering the tap. This extremely simple method ensures that everyone gets a fixed amount of holy water.
Vending machines today use, the very same principle of levers. An amazing farsightedness.

Automated doors : Being a man of science, Heron used his inventions to add traffic to Greek and Roman temples. So he made the automated doors. Once again; steam showed it's magic. The head priest would light a 'sacrificial fire' down in the basement of the temple. This heats an overhead tank and steam through a metal pipe goes through different networks, pulls levers up and down, in just a few minutes to perform a very minimalist task of opening the temple doors. But ancient world found no bounds of joy when they witnessed automatic doors.

Heron not only fooled the religious populace but also many scientists of his time.
A supreme con-artist disguised as a scientist.

Inventions made by Archimedes

As we near the end of our list, I discovered someone too.
Eureka! I found Archimedes! We all know him as a man who couldn't control his excitement and ran around naked shouting "eureka". But there was so much more to this senile old man. He was a military genius. He gave Syracuse a highly advanced arsenal. One such weapon was Solar death ray.

Deadly laser : When Roman fleet was heading towards Syracuse, in 212 BC, Archimedes summoned the measly army of Syracuse and polished their shields and mirrors. Why? To deflect the deadly Mediterranean sun rays onto charging Roman fleet. Roman wooden ships were burnt even before they reached the shore. A warrior who can drown an entire army without even drawing his blade. Archimedes thus became arch-nemesis for enemies of Greece.

But Archimedes had a positive side too. He possessed an amazing knowledge of properties of light, density of substances and fluid behavior. He devised a screw which could defy gravity and send water upstream.
This invention of his was called an Archimedes screw.

Archimedes Screw is used even today to generate power from water. It was used in agriculture in ancient times.

Archimedes. Truly a genius.

These inventions. These scientists. Not only invented some mind-boggling things that wouldn't be rediscovered for the next 1500 years but also with their passion they opened way for a new branch of science called Engineering. An engineer proceeds with these four great inventors as a basis in his career. All these inventions are still being used in different ways in modern world.

If only their works survived unscathed, we could have learnt much more from them.


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Author: Natarajan07 Feb 2018 Member Level: Diamond   Points : 4

Great article, the gyroscope and the robot during 3 B.C is a humble reminder that we have just 'borrowed' ideas from such legends like Philon and have built on it with the advances and resources that are available to us now.

My son was amazed at using a model of the Archimedes screw which pushed the water from the small pond to the handle at a much higher level (which is placed at the entrance of Vishveswaraiah museum in Bangalore.)

I think these people had gifted minds that were good at lateral thinking also(using mirrors to fight an army, when everyone will be thinking of bows, arrows and cannons).

I just wonder, should there be a class for children until they are 7-8 years old, wherein they are just let free with some resources and allow them to experiment out or explore their creativity ( not drawing or art classes)?



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