Byzantine-era Greek fire flamethrower

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.

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “ Just as war drove significant improvements in medical practices so, too, did it have an impact on the field of engineering. Scholars such as Archimedes became military engineers, inventing and improving defensive and offensive weapons. There were, in addition, other innovations such as the gear, the screw, the steam engine, the screw press and so on but the prevailing Greek attitude towards manual labor and labor-saving devices did not greatly encourage nor reward innovation (except in the military sphere) so many inventions remained curiosities rather than instruments of change. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

More than 2,000 years ago, the residents of Crete used a form of computer for calculating calendars based on the motions of the sun and the moon. The Roman orator Cicero wrote of a instrument made by the first century B.C. scholar Posidonius of Rhodes that "at each revolution reproduces the same motions of the Sun, the Moon and the five planets that take place in the heavens every day and night."

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome;
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Ancient Greek Advances in Textiles and Shipbuilding

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,||]

6th century BC Trireme

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

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.

20120223-Iron tools.jpg
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]

Ancient Inventions

ancient automated vending machine, AD 1st century Alexandria

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

Clepsydra (water clock)
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,∞]

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

Hero's mobile automaton, AD 1st century, Alexandria

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.

New Discoveries on the Antikythera Mechanism

model of the Antikythera Mechanism

Alexander Jones, a historian of ancient science at New York University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, has helped a great deal to figure out what the Antikythera Mechanism is all about. Sarah Kaplan wrote in the Washington Post: “Fluent in Ancient Greek, he was able to translate the hundreds of new characters revealed in the advanced imaging process. “Before, we had scraps of the text that was hiding inside these fragments, but there was still a lot of noise," he said. By combining X-ray images with the impressions left on material that had stuck to the original bronze, "it was like a double jigsaw puzzle that we were able to use for a much clearer reading." [Source: Sarah Kaplan, Washington Post, June 14, 2016 +++]

“The main discovery was a more than 3,500-word explanatory text on the main plate of the instrument. It's not quite an instruction manual — speaking to reporters, Jones's colleague Mike Edmunds compared it to the long label beside an item in a museum display, according to the AP. “It’s not telling you how to use it. It says, ‘What you see is such and such,’ rather than, ‘Turn this knob and it shows you something,’ " he explained. Other newly translated excerpts included descriptions of a calendar unique to the northern Greek city of Corinth and tiny orbs — now believed lost to the sandy sea bottom — that once moved across the instrument's face in perfect simulation of the true motion of the five known planets, as well as a mark on the dial that gave the dates of various athletic events, including a relatively minor competition that was held in the city of Rhodes. +++

“That indicates that the mechanism may have been built in Rhodes — a theory boosted by the fact that much of the pottery uncovered by the shipwreck was characteristic of that city. The craftsmanship of the instrument, and the two distinct sets of handwriting evident in the inscriptions, makes Jones believe that it was a team effort from a small workshop that may have produced similar items. True, no other Antikythera Mechanisms have been found, but that doesn't mean they never existed. Plenty of ancient bronze artifacts were melted down for scrap (indeed, the mechanism itself may have included material from other objects). +++

“It's likely that this particular mechanism and the associated Antikythera treasures were en route to a Roman port, where they'd be sold to wealthy nobles who collected rare antiques and intellectual curiosities to adorn their homes. The elegant complexity of the mechanism – and the use its makers designed it for – are emblematic of the values of the ancient world: For example, a dial that predicts the occurrence of eclipses to the precision of a day also purports to forecast what the color of the moon and weather in the region will be that day. To modern scientists, the three phenomena are entirely distinct from one another — eclipses depend on the predictable movements of the sun, moon and planets, the color of the moon on the scattering of light in Earth's atmosphere, and the weather on difficult-to-track local conditions. Astronomers may be able to forecast an eclipse years in advance, but there's no scientific way to know the weather that far out.” +++

“But to an ancient Greek, the three concerns were inextricably linked. It was believed that an eclipse could portend a famine, an uprising, a nation's fate in war. “Things like eclipses were regarded as having ominous significance," Jones said. It would have made perfect sense to tie together "these things that are purely astronomical with things that are more cultural, like the Olympic games, and calendars, which is astronomy in service of religion and society, with astrology, which is pure religion." That may go some way toward explaining the strange realization Price made more than 50 years ago: The ancient Greeks came dazzlingly close to inventing clockwork centuries sooner than really happened. That they chose to utilize the technology not to mark the minutes, but to plot out their place in the universe, shows just how deeply they regarded the significance of celestial events in their lives. In a single instrument, Jones said, "they were trying to gather a whole range of things that were part of the Greek experience of the cosmos."” +++

Antikythera Mechanism’s Missing Pieces and Clues

sideview of Antikythera Mechanism gears

Jo Marchant wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “The Antikythera mechanism was similar in size to a mantel clock, and bits of wood found on the fragments suggest it was housed in a wooden case. Like a clock, the case would’ve had a large circular face with rotating hands. There was a knob or handle on the side, for winding the mechanism forward or backward. And as the knob turned, trains of interlocking gearwheels drove at least seven hands at various speeds. Instead of hours and minutes, the hands displayed celestial time: one hand for the Sun, one for the Moon and one for each of the five planets visible to the naked eye—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. A rotating black and silver ball showed the phase of the Moon. Inscriptions explained which stars rose and set on any particular date. There were also two dial systems on the back of the case, each with a pin that followed its own spiral groove, like the needle on a record player. One of these dials was a calendar. The other showed the timing of lunar and solar eclipses. [Source: Jo Marchant, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2015 |||]

“Experts have been working to decipher inscriptions hidden inside the mechanism, in particular to understand the mechanism’s missing pieces, some destroyed, some probably still at the bottom of the sea. Though the pointers on the front face don’t survive, Alexander Jones, a historian at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York, says an inscription reveals that they carried colored balls: fiery red for Mars, gold for the Sun. |||

“Also missing are the parts that drove the planetary pointers, leading to debate about exactly how they moved. Because planets orbit the Sun, when viewed from Earth they appear to wander back and forth in the sky. The Greeks explained this motion with “epicycles”: small circles superimposed on a larger orbit. According to Michael Wright, a former curator at London’s Science Museum who has studied the mechanism longer than anyone, it modeled epicycles with trains of small gears riding around larger ones. Though some experts have dismissed this as beyond the Greeks’ abilities, Jones says he will publish evidence supporting the idea later this year. |||

“Other inscriptions hint at where the mechanism was made. Paul Iversen, a classicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, reports that the calendar includes month names used in Corinth and its colonies in northwest Greece. A dial that displayed the timing of major athletic festivals, including the Olympics, lists Naa, a festival held in northwest Greece, and Halieia, held to the south on the island of Rhodes. Perhaps the mechanism hailed from Rhodes and was being shipped north. The ancient philosopher Posidonius had a workshop in Rhodes that could have been the source; according to Cicero, Posidonius made a similar model of the heavens in the first century B.C. |||

“The tradition of making such mechanisms could be much older. Cicero wrote of a bronze device made by Archimedes in the third century B.C. And James Evans, a historian of astronomy at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, thinks that the eclipse cycle represented is Babylonian in origin and begins in 205 B.C. Maybe it was Hipparchus, an astronomer in Rhodes around that time, who worked out the math behind the device. He is known for having blended the arithmetic-based predictions of Babylonians with geometric theories favored by the Greeks.” |||

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

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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