Ancient Greek Technology

  • by  Elias Sfetsos

Who said that the robots, the automatic doors and the locomotive are technological advances of the second millennium? Definitely not! The pieces of information that keep surfacing prove what has been, for some decades, common knowledge among researchers: in Ancient Greece, people like Daedalus and Gods like Hephaestus developed techniques and operated inventions that a lot of inventors of our days would have been proud of.



The famous Talos (in the ancient Cretan dialect it means sun), was a fully operational robot, built by Hephaestus as a gift for Minos, King of Crete. Talos was made of copper and was huge. It protected Crete from her enemies and supervised the application of laws. It could move very fast and was capable of touring Crete 3 times in a single day (medium speed 250 km/h!). It had the power to throw enormous rocks against his opponents or to burn them with his boiling hot breath! In this way it drove back the hostile boats, protecting the island.
According to tradition, when the Argonauts returned from Kohida, they managed to destroy Talos with the help of Medea, the witch.  Medea used her forces to confuse Talos and the Argonauts wounded his leg. The blood pumped out of his one and only vein as melted metal! An other version of same story reports that  Poias, (father of Filoktitis) aimed an arrow to Talos’ heel, a screw came off and the blood of Gods streamed from the metal body! Many coins, picturing Talos were found in the city of Phaistos.
Automatic doors
Ancient technology was naturally placed in the service of religion! When a believer was making an offertory to a God, the God should thank him, no matter the hour of the day! Otherwise, perhaps the believer would turn to another God (there were many at those days) and some priests would loose the “benefits” of servicing their God . So, with the help of technology, certain doors opened automatically when the fire was lit on the altar and even certain statues began moving!
It is said that Heronas and Ktisivios had constructed mechanisms that sounded the trumpets of a temple when the altars were lit. Ithe interior of temple was sprayed with scented water, metallic birds began singing and some statues began flying. It is also said that the lighting conditions in and around the temple were regulated, creating artificial fog, when necessary.
Heronas’ steam engine

ancgreektech2Heronas of Alexandria was a Greek mathematician, engineer and inventor of the first century BC. He initially worked as shoemaker but he eventually decided to explore his ideas. He is better known as an engineer for his hydraulic mechanisms, simple machines and automations, but he was also an important mathematician of his time. He served as a director of the famous Technical School of Alexandria (maybe the world’s first polytechnic university).
He presented and operated the world’s first steam engine, consisted of a closed, spherical container, filled with water. When the water was heated and began to boil, the stream was relieved by two nozzles, configured in a polar alignment. The container was fixed in such a way that was allowed to rotate. The steam release caused a rotating motion of the container that could be used as a steam motor for various applications. The principle of this simple configuration is the same used today for jet propulsion.


Air and water pumps

ancgreektech5Ctesibius (fl. 2nd century B.C.), a Greek Alexandrian, was described as a mechanical genius whose inventiveness was limited only by the restrictions of the world he lived in. He was the son of a barber but the highly technical environment of Alexandria of this time helped him to leave the barbershop soon.
Using the power of water and air, he devised a number of ingenious mechanisms: a water organ, whose air pipes were operated by the weight of falling water, an air-powered catapult and a force pump.

Another useful invention was a portable double water pump used by the firemen to put off the fires on the big buildings of his city.
Ctesibius is perhaps best remembered for the CLEPSYDRA, or water clock. Although he did not actually invent it, he greatly improved it.

Ctesibius liked music and had an idea of using waterpower for his music creations. He made the first 'armonion'. This was pumping air through pipes!

Talking about musical instruments, it would be an omission to not mention Pythagoras. He meditated the relation of the music to the mathematics and found some rules that make the making of musical instruments much easier. He managed to express the musical harmony with mathematic rules through his philosophical and scientific approach.

The piston pub was also used by Ctesibius to pump water or air. He used it mainly for his prototype 'armonion' but also to other machines. These pubs were used in many constructions since then. They can pump water or air depending on the accuracy of the construction. In many applications we can find them in use until today, because of their simplicity and their reliability.



Pictures and references: Engineering & Technology in Ancient Greece by C. Lazos

778 engineering ancient greece  780 engineering ancient world   779 unknown technology homer


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