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Emerging Technology From the arXiv

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The Amazing Steam Engines Of The First Century

An online translation of an ancient text reveals some engineering marvels from antiquity.

  • January 20, 2011

Ask a person in the street who invented the steam engine and you’re more than likely to hear the names of various Renaissance inventors such as Denis Papin or James Watt.

Less well known is the fact that steam engines were in use at least 2000 years ago. Our knowledge of these devices is largely the result of a text called Pneumatica written in the first century by the Greek mathematician, engineer and inventor Hero of Alexandria.

Today, Amelia Carolina Sparavigna, at the Politecnico di Torino in Italy, talks us through some of these devices as they are described in an online translation of Hero’s work.

Hero was clearly aware of some remarkable machines. Sparavigna describes, in particular, a steam-powered device for levitating a ball, a steam-powered rotating ball and an engine for opening and closing temple doors (see above). These are just a small fraction of the machines that Hero describes in this and other work.

It’s probable that Hero wasn’t the inventor of all of them–he’s almost certainly describing the work of others as well as himself.

But it is clear that Hero is one of the great engineers in history. And somebody who will now get greater, well-deserved exposure thanks to the online availability of his writing.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1101.3470: Water, Air And Fire At Work In Hero’s Machines

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