If the ancient world has taught me anything it’s this: Everything was invented thousands of years ago. Only we’ve forgotten nearly all of it.
One such uber-inventer was Hero of Alexandria (also called Heron). He lived and studied in the city of Alexandria in Egypt (between 60 and 70 AD). This city had become a center for learning, drawing scholars from all over the ancient world to exchange ideas and, in Hero’s case, build some pretty cool machines.
Hero was responsible for the first steam engine, wind-powered machines, robots, and the railroad. After that, he built some more crazy contraptions. Enough to make Wile E Coyote look like a layabout.
Hero had the disadvantage of being born two centuries before the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. Thus, most of his inventions were millennia before their time. Even his own life is a mystery. He most likely taught at the Musaeum at Alexandria, the gathering place for scholars. It was there that he thought up his Iron Man inventions.
The Steam Engine
Okay, so this wasn’t the type of steam engine that could power a locomotive across the Wild West. But it could have, if Hero had spent more time on perfecting it. Basically he used steam to cause a ball to spin around, thus converting heat into mechanical energy. Hero called this an aeolipile.
Hero’s Aeolipile was a fascinating curio and nothing more because although it could create mechanical energy, there were no gears or cars or other machines that could use that energy. This was the ancient world after all. However, there is no other mention of such a device until we get to the Ottoman inventor Taqi al-Din in 1577, who was hailed as the greatest scientist on Earth. If he was the greatest for copying Hero’s steam engine, what does that make Hero?
Instead of iron tracks, the ancient world’s version of a rail road consisted of grooved paths pulled by people or horses. The most famous was the Diolkos, cutting across the narrow isthmus of Corinth. It allowed ships to be hauled overland (sort of like a land version of the Panama Canal).
Hero didn’t invent the railroad. It dated back to 600 BCE. However, if Hero had combined it with his steam engine, we’d have the industrial revolution back in ancient Greece. Imagine steampunks in togas.
Although he might not have created the railroad, Hero was very much into automating tasks. He created all sorts of devices that were “programmed” to do certain functions and the left alone (with no human input) to complete those functions.
He constructed an automaton called “”Hercules and the Dragon”, powered by water. As water pours into the container Hercules hits the dragon’s head. This causes the dragon to shoot water into Hercules’ face.
He used wind to power a pipe organ (making him the first to use wind to power a machine). As the arm turned from the wind, it transferred the motion to an air compressor. Then the organ was activated, the air was released to create a flute sound.
He even created a vending machine that served up holy water.
Drop a coin into the slot and a balance beam moves, drawing out a plug from a jar of holy water. As the balance beam reverts to equilibrium, the jug of holy water is sealed and your purchase ends. If only Hero had invented the candy bar.
And yes, he also made the very first robot. Sources suggest that Heron created a cart programmed to move along different directions. Around 60 CE, he built a cart with a rope wrapped around two independent axles. A falling weight provided the power. Pegs projected from the axle (sort of like cogs) and Heron used these to change how the rope was wound around the axel. This let the cart change direction and move the way Hero wanted to.
The cart was controlled with knots tied to ropes. When Hero pulled a rope, the knot moved a lever which caused certain actions to happen. He used the same process to create a mechanical play almost 10 minutes long, including dropping metal balls onto a sheet of metal to resemble thunder.
Genius at Math
If you any doubts that Hero was a genius way before his time, take a look at his mathematical accomplishments. He came up with the basics for Fermat’s principle. Hero stated that a light ray would always take the shortest route between two points. This is the basis for optics and fiber optics.
In his spare time, he discovered a quick way to find the square root of a number. He also created a formula (called Hero’s formula) to calculate the area of any triangle using only the lengths of its sides. Finally he discovered imaginary numbers. No, they’re not made up. When you square a number, say 4, the result is 16. When you square a negative number, like -4, the result it also 16. (The negatives cancel out). But, what happens when you take the square root of a negative number, like -16. The answer isn’t 4 or -4. It’s imaginary 4 (can you tell I was a math geek in school?).
Enough. Let it be known that Hero of Alexandria was the most amazing inventor of the ancient world, and perhaps all time.
Good article but…
“Hero had the disadvantage of being born two centuries before the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.”
I think you mean about 1,300 years before the Renaissance and 1,700 years before the Industrial Revolution 🙂
Very true. Thanks for catching that.
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