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Ancient Greek technology

By Spiros Tzelepis

Known for contributions to humanitarian studies, Ancient Greeks were adept in technology

When most people speak about the ancient Greek civilization, they mainly have in mind the humanitarian studies that flourished in ancient Greece. They know Plato and his philosophical theories about the Ideal Government, they admire the depth of Aristotle's thought, they seek the ever live values expressed by the dramatic poets like Aeschylus and Sophocles and they read again and again the history of Thucydides in order to be taught from the past for their present and future (that is a favourite occupation for me). However, fewer people know about the contribution of the Ancient Greeks in other sciences like medicine as exercised by Hippocrates or maths and geometry by Pythagoras and Euclid and even fewer know about their technological achievements.

Aiming at familiarizing modern Greeks with the technological achievements of their ancestors and in an attempt to make these achievements known to the visitors of Greece, the Municipal authorities of Athens and the Technological Museum of Thessaloniki organised an exhibition about ancient Greek technology. The exhibition which is closing at the end of June, is hosted in a very extraordinary space which used to be a factory in the past, producing gas for the needs of Athens. The factory has accepted artistic "interventions" and has been transformed into a vast cultural centre, hosting all kinds of cultural events.

The exhibition presents models of the ancient Greek technological achievements created by the Technical Museum of Thessaloniki and a lot of information coming from the ancient texts. The visitor enjoys a great variety of strange objects but as he is informed about their identity, he stays amazed in front of them.

What follows in this article is a brief description and a photo of the ones that attracted my interest as I had already read a lot about each of them.

Heron from Alexandria lived probably in the first century BC. He taught at the museum of Alexandria*. In his book "Pneumatics and Automat's making" he compiled all available technological knowledge on automats, ie, on self-mobile devices operating like "real beings" and making use of the properties of liquids and gases, he created sophisticated mechanical systems and ingenious programming.

Automatic Gates of a temple - Heron

The Aeolipile of Heron exploits the pressure of vapour converting it into circular power, it is a precursor of steam engine. With a little more work on that, the Industrial Revolution could have happened a thousand years before.

Astrolabe of Ptolemaios (2nd century AC) Claudius Ptolemaios, mathematician, astronomer and geographer.

The astrolabe is an astronomical instrument on which the celestial sphere is projected stereographically. It is used for the measurement of the geographical longitude and latitude of stars from any point on the Earth. Also it is used to measure the distance of the moon from the sun, and to measure the coordinates of the moon during the day.

The Antikythera Mechanism. It is a mechanism which is considered as the first portable calculator/computer and was used for astronomical calculations. It was found in a shipwreck in the Aegean Sea and has been studied a lot by various scientists. It is exhibited at the Archeological Museum of Athens and I intend to write a detailed article on this in the future.

Crane used at the port of Amathonte, Cyprus. Cranes with winches were used for hoisting heavy weights.

Screw made by Archimedes, a kind of pump

During my visit to this exhibition, I was amazed to see visitors of all ages reading carefully all the information about the exhibits, watching the relative video in the nearby room and then making comments about all these impressive -for their era-devices. I was also happy to see that at last someone was interested in showing to the world this part of Ancient Greek heritage that had been neglected for years and it is the least known to the large Greek and international audience (because besides the geometry of Euclid which is the second most read book in the world -the first is the Bible- the other ones were unknown to most of us). Also it was an indelible experience to see all these devices in reality after having heard and read so much about them.

Museum of Alexandria: It was not a building used as museums are used today. Instead, it was a part of the king's palace in Alexandria dedicated to the Muses where various scientists and intellectual people from all the hellenistic world gathered.

Info from the exhibition and from my general knowledge and readings. Photos by S. Tzelepis

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Reconstruction: July-August-September 2002

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