Euthytonon (a weapon)
The Greeks made many technological advances. Some of the greatest advances were made by the Hellenistic Greeks, who among things made hand-shaped nutcrackers from bronze and employed screw-like helixes to make primitive odometers and water pumps. Ceramics created by the Greeks were far superior to anything made by civilizations that preceded it.

Greeks in Alexandria developed the first steam-powered device. Ctesibius of Alexandria (second century B.C.) invented a hydraulic organ and a water clock with a floating indicator to mark the time on a vertical scale.

The methods used to make wool and cloth in ancient Greece lived on for centuries. After a sheep was sheared, the wool was placed on a spike called a distaff. A strand of wool was then pulled off; a weight known as whorl was attached to it; and the strand was twisted into a thread by spinning with it the thumb and forefinger. Since each thread was made this way, you can how time consuming it must have been to make a piece of cloth or a sail for a ship.| [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

To make cloth, threads were placed on a warp-weighted loom (similar to ones used by Lapp weavers until the 1950's). Warps are the downward hanging threads on a loom, and they were set up so that every other thread faced forward and the others were in the back. A weft (horizontal thread) was then taken in between the forward and backward row of warps. Before the weft was threaded through in the other direction, the position of the warps was changed with something called a heddle rod. This simple tool reversed the warps so that the row in the front was now in the rear, and visa versa. In this way the threads were woven in a cross stitch manner that held them together and created cloth. The cloth in turn was used to make cushions, upholstery for wooden furniture and wall hangings as well as garments and sails.||

On ancient Greek and Roman ships the hulls were built first and then strengthened with an internal frame. The practice of building ribs onto the keel and then attaching hull planks to the skeletons did not become commonplace until the Middle Ages. Instead planks in the hull were held together with mortises and tenons (slots and wooden pieces) that were fit together with great skill.

The mortises (slots) were drilled into the planks and spaced from five to 10 inches apart. Adjoining planks had mortise in the same places. Tenons (wooden pieces) were placed in the slots to hold the planks together. Wooden pegs or copper nails were then hammered into the tenons to hold them in place. The fit was so tight that caulking wasn’t needed. The hull was tarred and sheathed in lead primarily as protection from shipworms. The thickness of the planks varied from one inch to four inches. Hulls with thin planks had two layers of planks around the keel.

Iron and Ancient Metallurgy

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Metal was worked in a shaft furnace and shaped with an anvil and hammer, The Greeks made iron stronger by quenching in cold water while the metal was still hot. The Romans learned how to temper it. The Greeks gained access to tin needed to make bronze when they colonized what is now Marseilles.

The Iron Age began around 1,500 B.C. It followed the Stone Age, Copper Age and Bronze Age. North of Alps it was from 800 to 50 B.C. Iron was used in 2000 B.C. Improved iron working from the Hittites became wide spread by 1200 B.C.

Iron was made around 1500 B.C. by the Hitittes. About 1400 B.C., the Chalbyes, a subject tribe of the Hitittes invented the cementation process to make iron stronger. The iron was hammered and heated in contact with charcoal. The carbon absorbed from the charcoal made the iron harder and stronger. The smelting temperature was increased by using more sophisticated bellows.

Iron---a metal a that is harder, stronger and keeps an edge better than bronze---proved to be an ideal material for improving weapons and armor as well as plows (land with soil previously to hard to cultivate was able to be farmed for the first time). Although it is found all over the world, iron was developed after bronze because virtually the only source of pure iron is meteorites and iron ore is much more difficult to smelt (extract the metal from rock) than copper or tin. Some scholars speculate the first iron smelts were built on hills where funnels were used to trap and intensify wind, blowing the fire so it was hot enough to melt the iron. Later bellows were introduced and modern iron making was made possible when the Chinese and later Europeans discovered how to make hotter-burning coke from coal. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Metal making secrets were carefully guarded by the Hittites and the civilizations in Turkey, Iran and Mesopotamia. Iron could not be shaped by cold hammering (like bronze), it had to be constantly reheated and hammered. The best iron has traces of nickel mixed in with it. [Ibid]

About 1200 BC, scholars suggest, cultures other than the Hittites began to possess iron. The Assyrians began using iron weapons and armor in Mesopotamia around that time with deadly results, but the Egyptians did not utilize the metal until the later pharaohs. Lethal Celtic swords dating back to 950 BC have been found in Austria and its is believed the Greeks learned to make iron weapons from them. [Ibid]

Weaving weights

Ancient Inventions

Book: Ancient Inventions by Peter James and Nick Thorpe (Ballantine Books, 1995) is a compendium of curiosities dating from the Stone Age to 1,000 A.D., the book argues that just because our ancestors lived long ago and had less technology at their disposal does not mean they were any less intelligent than we are. [Source: Laura Colby, New York Times, May 16, 1995]

In fact, many of the inventions that we believe belong to our own modern era already existed hundreds, sometimes even thousands of years ago. Our ancestors were not quaint superstitious people mystified by the problems of everyday life; they were, much as we are today, hard at work on ingenious solutions. The authors have broken down the inventions into different categories such as medicine; food, drink and drugs; transportation and communications; and military technology, making the book easy to thumb through in the coffee-table style, rather than one to be read from start to finish.

We learn that our ancestors used birth control---everything from a condom to a rudimentary form of the pill---abused drugs ranging from hallucinogenic mushrooms to cocaine, and were entertained by sport, music and theater. We see homes many thousands of years old with plumbing, indoor ovens, and many other conveniences we associate with our own era.


But by far the most interesting parts of the book are those that provide examples of technology, rather than everyday objects. Inhabitants of present-day Iraq, for instance, had developed a form of electric battery about 2,000 years ago, using a clay jar that contained a copper rod sealed with asphalt. The so-called Baghdad Battery, discovered in 1936, was probably used by jewelers to electroplate bronze jewelry. Medicine, including brain surgery, the making of artificial limbs and plastic surgery, is one of the most hair-raising chapters. Early military technology, including a "machine gun" in the form of a crossbow that could fire 20 arrows in less than 15 seconds, is also covered.

The book's black-and-white photos and drawings are helpful in explaining how some of these ancient inventions worked. Many of them are taken from ancient sources, such as the sketch of a child in a high chair (or is it on a potty? the authors ask) from a Greek vase, or papyrus paintings of an Egyptian suffering from the effects of a hangover. It is a pity that there are not more of these, because they help bring the inventions to life.

Ancient Greek Sundials and Water Clocks

Sundials didn't measure 60 minute hours. Instead they divided the daylight into 12 hours of equal length. Greek sundials looked like inside of the bottom half of a globe. On one side was the pointer that created the shadow and on the other side were lines curving up the side of the globe. These curving lines marked off the hours and compensated for the changing of the sun's position with the seasons. The length of the hours varied from about 45 minutes in the winter time to 75 minutes in the summer. The Greeks called sundials "Hunt-the-Shadow." The Tower of the Winds in Athens had sundials on four sides, which meant an observer could tell the time at any time of the day on three sides of the tower. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin,∞]

The Greeks used water clocks as the Egyptians had done since the 15th century B.C., Water clocks operate on the principle that water can be made to drip at a fairly constant rate from a bowl with a tiny hole in the bottom. Most Greek water-clocks functioned like hour glasses. They measuring about twenty minutes and were used to limit politician's speeches and the speaking time of accusers and defendants in a court of law. The huge water-clock in the Tower of the Winds not only marked off 24 hours, it showed the seasons and predicted astrological phenomena as well. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin,∞]

oil lamps
Large water-clocks were rare. They were generally too unwieldy and messy to put in someone's home (water either had to be piped in or someone had to be willing to constantly fill a lot of empty tubs). To be calibrated properly, the flow and the pressure of water had to remain constant. What's more, the lengths of night time hours changed with the season, in opposition to the hours of the day, and this was just too complicated for the Greeks to deal with.∞

There are some example of waterclocks set beside sundials so that time could be ascertained on cloudy days. These clocks still only defined "temporary" hours and the time registered on different clocks varied widely, making it difficult to set appointments. And course they had difficulty dealing with changes in the length of the hours at different times of the year.

Water Clock of Andronikos Kryrrestos in Athens was an ingenious device built 2000 years ago that was a cross between a toilet and a modern clock. The "mainspring" was a tank fed by a spring that slowly dript water into a barrel which caused a float to rise. The float was connected to series of chains and pulleys that wrapped around a cylinder attached to table-top size disc. When the float rose it caused the chain to move the cylinder which in turn turned the disc. Pointing a finger at the disc was a statue. Hours were indicated by the finger as the disc turned.

Ancient Greek Magnets, Screws, Thermoscopes and Navigation Tools

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According to legend Magnesia (magnet-bearing stone) was discovered by a shepherd named Magnets in ancient Thessaly along the Aegean Sea when a strange mineral pulled out all the nails out of his shoes. Loadstones made from magnetic rock were used as a medicine and a contraceptive; their magic, the Greeks believed, was powerful enough to force unfaithful wives to admit their transgressions and cure bad breath caused by garlic and onions. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin,∞]

Screws were hard to make and in short supply in Greece and Rome. Most everything from furniture to ships was held together with bronze or iron nails. The ancient Greek scientist Hero may have devised a screw cutting tool, but making screws in large numbers was a difficult task. It wasn't until the invention of semi-modern lathes in the 16th century that it became possible to mass produce them.∞

Long before "thermometers" were invented, Philo of Byzantium (second century B.C.) used "thermoscopes" and "fountains that drip in the sun" based on the principal that water rose up a tube when heated.

Astrolabes--- astronomical calculators used to solve problems relating to time and location based on the positions of the Sun and stars in the sky---were invented by the Greeks and improved by the Arabs. The only thing the Greek mariners needed to measure their latitudinal position was a sighting device that measured degrees above the horizon of either the sun or the north star. The north star was the easiest to measure because adjustments did not have to be made for the season like they did with the sun. The simple measuring device was made of two rods, hinged at one end. Held sideways, the bottom rod was leveled to the horizon and the upper one was pointed at the sun or star. The angle between the two rods yielded the angle of inclination of the sun or star, and with tables the latitude could be ascertained. More sophisticated astrolabes evolved from these devises. ∞

Antikythera Mechanism, Ancient Calculator

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Antikythera Mechanism
In November 2006, in an article published in Nature, team of researchers lead by Mike Edmunds of the University of Cardiff announced they had pieced together and figured out of the functions of an ancient astronomical calculator made at the end of the 2nd century B.C. that was so sophisticated it has been described as the world’s first analog computer. The devise was more accurate and complex than any instrument that would appear for the next 1,000 years. [Source: Reuters]

The Antikythera Mechanism is the earliest known device to contain an intricate set of gear wheels. It was discovered by sponge divers on a shipwreck off Antikythera, a Greek island north of Crete, in 1901 but until recently no one knew what it did. Using X-ray tomography, computer models and copies of the actual pieces, scientists from Britain, Greece and the United States were able to reconstruct the device, whose sophistication was far beyond what was though possible for the ancient Greeks.

The lunch-box-size device was comprised of 37 gear wheels packed together sort of like the gears in a watch and was housed in a wooden case with inscriptions on the cover and bronze dials. It could add, multiply, divide and subtract. It was also able to align the number of lunar months with years and display where the sun and the moon were on the zodiac. On top of all that it also had a dial that indicated when solar and luna eclipses were likely to occur; it tracked the dates of the ancient Olympics and other sporting events; it took into account the elliptical orbits of the moon; and it may have had extra gears that predicted the motions of the planets.

Edmunds told Reuters, “It could be described as the first known calculator. Our recent work has applied very modern techniques that we believe have now revealed what its actual functions were...the actual astronomy is perfect for the period. What is extraordinary about the things is that they were able to make such a sophisticated technological device and be able to put that into metal.” Edmundssaid the device is unique. Nothing like it has ever been since, and devices that were as sophisticated would not appear until the Middle Ages, when the first cathedral clocks were put into use.

On the discovery that the Antikythera Mechanism tracked Olympic days Yanas Bitsakis, a Greek researcher involved with project told AP. “We were astonished because this is not an astronomic cycle but an Olympian cycle, one of social events. One does not need a piece of high technology to keep track of a simple four-year cycle .” He said the mechanics might have been seen as “microcosm illustrating the temporal harmonization of human and divine order.”

The device also has a function related to the Metonic calendar, which was used to reconcile a day difference between the lunar months and solar year. Researchers believe the Olympic tracking system gives the Antikythera Mechanism a connection to the colonies of Corinth, possible Syracuse in Sicily, where Archimedes lived and this in turn hints of a connection with Archimedes himself. Archimedes, who lived in Syracuse and died in 212 B.C. He invented a planetarium that calculated motions of the moon and the known planets and wrote a lost manuscript on astronomical mechanisms.

Archimedes and His Inventions

Archimedes (287-212 B.C.) may have been the greatest inventor of all time. He invented the compound pulley and the Archimedes screw and explained the theory of the lever, and said that if he could find one long enough and a prop strong enough he could lift the entire world, or in his words, “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth.”

He was also a great scientist and mathematician, among other things estimating the value of pi and conducted the first mathematic discussion of infinity. According to legend when he discovered the concept of specific gravity---the idea that objects of the same material and the same weight will displace the same amount of water---while he was taking a bath he was so excited he jumped out of his bathtub and ran through the streets nude shouting "Eureka! Eureka!"

William Noel, a curator of ancient manuscripts at the Walter Art Museum in Baltimore, told Smithsonian magazine, “Archimedes was the greatest mathematician in the ancient world. He was the first scientist to apply abstract mathematical principals to the world around him.”

The Archimedes screw is a devise that moves water up hill. It is still widely used in rural Egypt to raise water from a lower irrigation ditch to a higher one. An Archimedes screw used today in agriculture is about six feet long and a foot wide. It is made of wood and resembles a large drill bit. Placed inside steel tube, angled so it is a little less than vertical to the ground, and turned by a hand crank, the device draws water uphill at a slight incline. Cranked from dawn until dusk the ingenious but primitive tool draws enough water irrigate a half an acre of land.

Archimedes’s Life, Death and Works

Archimedes was born and spent most of his life in Syracuse on Sicily. To save his hometown from a Roman invasion, Archimedes invented a machine that, according to Plutarch, had huge iron claws that came out from city walls overlooking the harbor and plucked ship from the sea, shook out the sailors, and then tossed the ships on jagged rocks. The ships the machines couldn't lift were burned with mirrors that intensified and focused the rays of the sun. Archimedes also invented machines that hurled stone balls at advancing troops. Reportedly these machines held off Roman attacks for eight months.

Archimedes was assassinated at the age of 75 by the Romans for his anti-Roman activities. In one account of his death he was so absorbed in a mathematical problem he failed to notice that Syracuse had been sacked and see the Roman soldier who drove a sword through him. In another story he was found make geometric designs in the sand and said, as he was being killed, “Don’t disturb my circles.” In any case, Archimedes was granted his last request: that a sphere and cylinder be placed on his tombstone.◂

Archimedes wrote On the Method of Mathematical Theorems , On Floating Bodies , On the Measurement of the Circle , On the Sphere and the Cylinder , On Spiral Lines and On the Equilibrium of Planes .

In On the Method of Mathematical Theorems , Archimedes uses the way an object can be balanced to derive its geometric and physical properties and discusses infinity, an idea which was thought by many to have been first really explored in age of Sir Isaac Newton. The work also contains a piece called Stomachion , arguably the first treatise on combinatronics, a branch of mathematics that is concerned with the organization of elements within sets. In this piece Archimedes described a puzzle in which a square is cut into 14 irregular pieces . The solution lies in determining the number of ways the pieces can be arranged back into a square.

Archimedes Palimpsest

Archimedes works were originally written on papyrus and the originals have now been lost. But over the centuries the originals were faithfully copied and recopied by generations of scribes and made their way to parchment around the A.D. 5th century. All of these works have also been lost.

The Archimedes Palimpsest is a 174-page 1,000-year-old book made of goatskin that is about the size of a hardback book. Comprised of very fragile pages made of paper that had been burned and torn and have spots of purple mold on them, it contains two Archimedes works--- On the Method of Mathematical Theorems and another in the original Greek---that are regarded as the closet copies of Archimedes originals, something that makes unique and very valuable. The Archimedes Palimpsest is the only copy of Archimedes work, which contains his final proofs and explanations of his discoveries. [Source: Mary K. Miller, Smithsonian magazine, March 2007]

The Archimedes Palimpsest is believed to have originated in the A.D. 900s and was kept at the main library in Constantinople. It survived the sacking of that city by Crusaders in 1206 and later made its way to a Christian monastery in Bethlehem. In 1229, a Greek priest who needed the durable and valuable vellum for a liturgical work took the Archimedes work apart, scraped and washed the pages and copied liturgical texts on them, a process known as palmiseting. As awful as this sounds the original text probably would not have survived had the priest not done this and subsequent monks not taken measure preserve it. Palimpsest is pronounced “PAL-imp-sest” and is Greek for “rubbed again”).

The palimpsest was then lost until it was rediscovered in a Greek Orthodox monastery in Istanbul (Constantinople) by a Danish classics scholar, Johan Ludwig Heiberg, in 1906. He recognized some of faint writing as the work of Archimedes and photographed many of the pages and wrote some scholarly articles about them. Then work disappeared again, under mysterious circumstances (it was possibly stolen) is thought to have been in the hands of a French family for much of the 20th century.

In 1998, the work resurfaced and was sold for $2.2 mullion at a Christie's auction. The owner remain anonymous but has allowed scientists to study it and photograph it. Of particular significance is the fact the owner has allowed the work to be X-rayed with advanced equipment at Stanford’s Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory using a device that produces powerful beams of electrons that race around a 260-foot-in-diameter ring at the speed of light and pick up iron found in the original ink under gold lief used in a forgery attempt. Just taking the book apart and cleaning and restoring it for the imaging took four years. Using ultraviolet light and various methods to enhance images, scientists from Johns Hopkins and the Rochester Institute of Technology were able to reveal about 80 percent of the manuscript’s contents.

Abigail Quandt, the senior conservator of manuscripts and rare books; and specialists in imaging techniques, told the New York Times she took almost four years to take the palimpsest apart. Some pages of the text were laid on a table where fiber optic lights on either side revealed aspects of the manuscript. Ultraviolet, strobe and tungsten lights were used to enhance the visibility of the text. After computer processing, the hypertext appeared red, and the prayer book text appeared black.

Mirror weapon

Contents of the Archimedes Palimpsest

The Archimedes Palimpsest is best known for containing some of the oldest copies of work by the great Greek mathematician who gives the manuscript its name. But there is more to the palimpsest than Archimedes’ work, including 10 pages of Hyperides, offering tantalizing and fresh insights into the critical battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., in which the Greeks defeated the Persians, and the battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C., which spelled the beginning of the end of Greek democracy. [Source: Felicia R. Lee, New York Times, November 27, 2006]

“This book is the most important palimpsest in the world,” William Noel, the curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters Art Museum here and the director of the Archimedes Palimpsest project, told the New York Times. “We’re learning about the nuts and bolts of ancient medieval history and gaining a new understanding of the early history of the calculus and of our understanding of ancient physics. The prayer book is made up of five other books. Another of these books seems to be an early Christian---second or third century---commentary on ancient views of the soul and why they were incorrect.”

The palimpsest contains about 120 printed pages of Archimedes text, in addition to the Hyperides material, a philosophical commentary on Aristotle, a neo-Platonic philosophical text, pages from a liturgical book on the life of a saint and at least five pages so well-erased it is impossible to determine what they are, Noel told the New York Times. The mystery of Archimedes’ treatise on combinatorics, the Stomachion, was solved in 2003 by deciphering the palimpsest.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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