The influence of Ancient Greece on the modern world is pervasive, from democratic institutions to classical influences on art and architecture. The ancient civilization also invented a wide range of technologies, some of which are now central to modern life. From the odometer to the gimbal, these ancient Greek engineering inventions are ubiquitous today and have been central to many advancements that followed. Read more below for 5 famous examples of ancient Greek technology still used today.
1. Archimedes’ Screw: The Ancient Greek Engineering Invention with Egyptian Roots
Born around 287 BCE in the city of Syracuse in Sicily, Archimedes is renowned for a wide range of scientific discoveries and feats of engineering. One of the most famous inventions associated with the Sicilian scientist is the Archimedes Screw. Driven by necessity in his native Syracuse, Archimedes implemented the water screw to remove excess water from the hull of a ship commissioned by King Hiero II. Although Ancient Greek historian Diodorus attributed the invention to Archimedes, Archimedes never claimed to have invented the technology, instead discovering the screw pump visiting Egypt in 234 BCE.
The invention uses a sealed cylinder open at both ends with a screw-like blade. When the cylinder rotates, the device can efficiently lift water submerging the lower opening of the cylinder. This invention could be rotated by hand, operated by a single person creating an efficient process for raising water. Although no longer operated by hand, the Archimedes’ Screw has many modern applications. Since its invention, the most common application of Archimedes’ Screw is in irrigation. The technology can raise water from water sources into irrigation ditches providing an efficient water supply for agriculture.
Another modern application of Archimedes’ screw is as a sustainable technology used to harness hydroelectric power. In this application, the design of the screw is similar, but, rather than raising water, water pours through the screw pushing it into motion and generating kinetic energy. This can be implemented in rivers where water is flowing slowly. As a result of the slow movement of the turbines in low-flowing rivers, a hydrodynamic screw turbine can be integrated well with the natural ecology and aquatic life of a river.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
2. Ancient Greek Analogue Computer
In 1901 a gearing mechanism was recovered from a shipwreck near the Greek island of Antikythera. Divided into 82 fragments, the mechanism was later analyzed by scientists internationally. The researchers have concluded that the differential gearing mechanism was used to predict astronomical patterns. Various estimates have been put forward for the date of invention between around 100 BCE and 200 BCE. At the earlier end, estimates would align with Rhodian astronomer Hipparchus’ study of the moon’s orbit.
This device is the earliest discovered technology of its kind by a significant margin, with the next astronomical clocks invented in England and Italy around 1400 years later. The Antikythera mechanism provides significant insight into technological progress in late Hellenistic Greece. This artifact is the earliest preserved example of gearing discovered in Europe. The complexity of the mechanism and functionality of the device evidence a civilization with an advanced understanding of differential gearing.
Physicist Derek John de Solla Price analyzed the device in 1959 and compared the Antikythera Mechanism to modern analog computers in its efficient calculation functionality. Based on the inscriptions examined on the remaining fragments of the device, users could input a date to receive complex predictions of astronomical patterns.
This is a gearing mechanism with three drive shafts, with the drive shafts on either side of the main shaft rotating at different speeds. This was used to provide angular rotations of the moon and the sun in the Antikythera mechanism. In the early 20th Century, mechanical computers used differential gears to perform calculations. Differential gears are now ubiquitous in a wide range of technologies, with the most common use being in automobiles.
Although there is some contention over the inventor of the odometer, there is a consensus that it was invented around the 3rd Century BCE and widely used throughout the late-Hellenistic Period. Archimedes discussed the concept of an odometer in ‘Measurement of a Circle’ published in 240 BCE. Much later, Heron of Alexandria described an odometer in his text ‘On the Dioptra’.
Evidence for the odometer existing by the end of the Classical Period comes in the distances documented throughout Alexander the Great’s conquests. In Ancient Greece, bematists were specialists in measuring distances and land. The distances recorded by Alexander the Great’s bematists between Hecatompylos and Alexandria Areion, part of the silk road, were correct to an accuracy of 0.2% over a distance of 527 miles. This level of accuracy indicates that some form of odometer was used to measure distances. While it is not clear what form this odometer may have taken at the beginning of the Hellenistic Period, by the start of the Roman era, it was clear that a chariot or cart fitted with a gearing system was used to measure distances.
This technology formed a crucial component of Rome’s Empire as it was central to building roads and working out supply requirements for military campaigns. Archimedes’ calculations in his 60 BCE text ‘Measurement of a Circle’ still apply to odometers used in cars today, using the wheel’s number of rotations and circumference to measure the distance traveled.
The first known description of a gimbal appeared by Philo of Byzantium toward the end of the 3rd Century BCE. Born in Byzantium and later living in Alexandria, Philo’s texts include the first known descriptions of a number of other engineering inventions, including the water mill and a chain drive used to reload a repeating crossbow. Philo’s thermoscope is also a predecessor to the thermometer used today.
Philo’s description of a gimbal described an inkwell mounted within an eight-sided pot with holes in each side. The inkwell was mounted within a number of metal rings on different axes meaning that at any angle the pot was rotated, the inkwell remained upright. This meant the ink would not run out of the holes, and the pot could be placed on any side. This use of a pivoted support that allows external rotation whilst keeping the support item upright is now used in a wide range of contexts.
One example where this is used is in stabilizing cameras. 3-axis gimbals maintain a camera’s stability and axis while the camera is moved by the operator. Gimbaled thrusts were used in most rockets to control the spacecraft’s direction. Using two axes rather than three, this gimbal allows the exhaust nozzle to change direction. Philo’s text, the ‘Pneumatics’, which describes the inkpot gimbal, has been regarded by some historians as edited in a 9th Century Arabic translation.
However, a recent analysis of the translation demonstrates it is likely to be credible as it included Greek characters, which had not been used for almost 800 years at the time of the translation. Roman author Athenaeus Mechanicus described a device similar to a gimbal in his text ‘On Machines’ composed in the 1st Century BCE, demonstrating that this technology had been developed further by the beginning of the Roman era.
5. Elevator: Could It Be an Ancient Greek Engineering Invention?
The first elevator, built by Archimedes around 236 BCE, was described by Roman Architect Vitruvius. The elevator was described as using a pulley system around a drum powered by a rotating capstan operated by hand. The use of pulleys and winch systems was well-documented in Ancient Greece and was responsible for many of the architectural achievements of the time. Archimedes is considered to have invented the first compound pulley, with the earliest account of winch systems found in a text by the Greek historian Herodotus.
These pulleys were used in a wide range of contexts, using leverage to lift heavy objects in constructing some of Ancient Greece’s most impressive structures. While pulleys are known to have existed around the 12th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, the introduction of the compound pulley by Archimedes helped increase the mechanical leverage of this invention. A compound pulley combines a fixed and movable pulley to increase this mechanical advantage.
Grooves found cut into the stones at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi indicate that pulley systems were implemented with cranes in Ancient Greece as early as the 7th Century BCE. With some blocks in this temple weighing almost 400kg, some form of a crane was almost certainly needed to make this project possible. The Romans adopted this developed use of winches, pulleys, and cranes in some of the most recognizable architectural feats of the ancient world.
From the fascinating Antikythera Mechanism to the odometer and the gimbal, and from the elevator to the screw of Archimedes, these ancient Greek engineering inventions are ubiquitous today and have been central to many advancements that followed.