The Ancient Greek 'Geek Squad'
Updated: Jun 7, 2022
Today, we live in a world of robotic surgery, artificial intelligence, retinal scanners, self-driving electric cars and feel that WE are so advanced. But you may be astounded to learn of the advanced civilization of Ancient Greece. Gyroscopes, wine-serving robots, ingenious wine jugs, automated temple doors, coin-operated holy-water dispensers, security alarms, hydraulic clocks, alarm clocks, telecommunication systems, and the earliest computers existed in the ancient Greek world. On a recent trip to Athens, I visited the Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology and was mesmerized. Located in Kolonaki, the heart of Athens close to Syntagma Square is an INTERACTIVE museum in a historic Art Nouveau building full of models of ancient Greek technologies that were constructed from plans researched in ancient Greek and Latin literature, Arabic manuscripts, vase paintings, and archaeological findings.
Not only were the Greeks innovators, scientists, and physicists, but they were also meticulous record-keepers. As such, they systematically and thoroughly documented their many inventions on scrolls. They housed these scrolls in numerous 'libraries for the learned', such as those located in Alexandria, Ephesus, Pergamon, and of, course, Greece, too. Sadly, TOO MANY scrolls were lost with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria by the Romans in 48 BC, but luckily many plans remained preserved which were housed in other locations. The Romans co-opted these innovative plans, as did the Assyrians, Persians, and later the Arabs. As a result, subsequent to much research, these ancient Greek innovations could be "re-discovered" and compared to the technologies of our "modern world". They are shockingly similar. The legacies of the ancient Greeks continue today to constitute the building blocks of our modern technology.
Without overwhelming you with physics and hard science, I want to share a few examples of the advances and innovations of the ancient Greeks.
Automated Humanoid Robot
The automatic servant of Philon from the 3rd c. BC was a humanoid robot in the form of a life-sized female servant who was built to dispense wine to guests. In her right hand, she held a jug of wine. Her left hand was positioned with her palm up. When a guest placed a cup into the palm of her left hand, she would automatically pour wine ... in the Ancient Greek fashion, that being wine first followed by water to dilute it. Inside the servant were two airtight containers, one filled with wine and one filled with water. These were attached to tubes, air pipes, hinges, and springs all of which acted together to robotically serve wine. How decadent!
Coin-operated Vending Machines
The Ancient Greeks developed the oldest automatic vending machines in history. Theirs were in the form of automatic holy water servers that were coin-operated. These were placed outside of the temples and allowed the faithful to obtain holy water after dropping a 5-drachma coin into the vessel. There was a water reservoir within the vessel with a stop valve. When the coin dropped, it fell onto a balance that was attached to the valve. When the balance tipped, the valve was briefly lifted, thereby allowing water to be dispensed.
This was a mechanism developed by Archimedes in the 3rd c. BC, which allowed the pumping of large amounts of water across a difference in altitude. His mechanism consisted of a wooden shaft that had many curves of thin and flexible branches stuck to it, one on top of the other. Hence an endless screw was created. This screw was placed within a wooden pipe. The pipe was placed at a 30-degree incline. When the shaft was rotated, the water trapped within the curves was transported to the top of the pipe.
This innovation is in constant use to this day, even at Sea World water park in San Diego, CA, for example, where it is used to lift water for the Shipwreck Rapids water ride.
Sound Alarm System
This was a sound device attached to a door. The mechanism consisted of a pulley, a weight, an articulating bar, a trumpet, a water-air container, and a whistle. It was activated by the opening of the door which allowed the trumpet to descend into a container with water and enclosed air. This action displaced the air through a whistle thereby sounding the alarm. Hence, our first security alarm systems.
This was a spectacular invention that is somewhat complicated to explain. In essence, the hydraulic clock consisted of three containers fitted with controller valves and supplied by a natural spring. The valves controlled the containers' fill and drip rates. A dripper supplied the tall bronze container, drop by drop, with a constant water supply. A float within the tall container was attached to a rod and a statuette. As the water in the tall container rose, so did the statuette who pointed to a mark on a rotating drum. One-hour increments were demarcated on the drum, horizontally. At the end of 24 hours, the water in the tall container exceeded the level of the side-built siphon and rapidly drained. This caused the water level in the container to rapidly drop resulting in the rotation of the drum by 1/365th turn. The statuette thereafter pointed to the exact time on the next day. This clock operated continuously, on its own, without the need for winding or human intervention.
Precursor of the Steam Turbine
The last example I'll share is what the Greeks called the 'aeolosphere'. This invention is one that could have easily propelled the Greeks to the Industrial Revolution during the Hellenistic era, had political, economical, and social circumstances not interfered. As we know the backbone of the Industrial Revolution was the steam engine, for steam could be used to POWER machinery.
The Greeks' aeolosphere consisted of a sphere that rested on the curved ends of two pipes connected to an airtight boiler containing water. The sphere was also fitted with two curved 'exhaust' nozzles. A fire beneath the boiler heated the water which turned it into steam. The steam entered the sphere through the two pipes and emerged with speed and power from the exhaust nozzles forcing the continuous rotation of the sphere. If the Greeks would have harnessed the power of that steam to move pulleys or gears or something else, then the Industrial Revolution could have occurred two millennia earlier! That is certainly an impressive thought.
'Geek Squad' Wrap-up
I chose to write this blog, NOT to give a lesson on hard science, but rather to share an appreciation of the MODERN innovations of the Ancient Greeks. It genuinely fascinates me to see how intelligent, sophisticated, and innovative they were with TECHNOLOGY, back at a time when they didn't have access to our modern machinery, industry, computers, and processors. Their very THOROUGH KNOWLEDGE of "simple" physics and astrology enabled them to create technologies that STILL form the building blocks of our modern machinery.
I shared just six examples from amongst the couple hundred inventions displayed in the museum. If you happen to be in Athens, it is well worth your time to visit the Kotsanas Museum to gain your own appreciation of the technological sophistication of Ancient Greek culture.