Ancient and modern
19 November 2022
These days technology rules the roost and robots take questions in the House of Lords. In the West at least, the Greeks (as ever) got there first. Like the Romans, they were fascinated by hydraulics, springs, pistons, gears, sprockets, pulley-chains – and experimented with them to produce a whole range of lifting, digging, and propelling devices, especially for military purposes.
A breakthrough happened when some Ancient Greeks, observing that the earth and heavens revolved in predictable circles, mimicked them in hand-cranked, bronze mechanisms consisting of complex, linked cogwheels to replicate and predict that movement – the first analogue computers.
The single recovered example is the Antikythera machine (2nd century bc), named after the island off which it was found. It has at least 35 wheels, the largest of which has 223 teeth. On similar lines we read about Archimedes’ planetarium (3rd century bc) simulating movements of the sun, moon and planets, and Ptolemy’s astrolabe (first century ad), a sort of GPS system – and much else.
But the research did not end there. Greeks were equally fascinated by forces of nature – wind, gravity, vacuums, pressure – and designed a range of astonishing gadgets to exploit their potential. Among them were a wind-powered organ, a robot pouring glasses of wine, a glass that constantly refilled itself and a burglar alarm.
Even more dramatic was jet propulsion. Archytas’ animal bladder, looking like a flying pigeon (5th century bc), was pressured up with steam from a boiler and then released. Heron’s steam engine (1st century ad) might even have generated an industrial revolution. It consisted of a metal sphere, fitted with a curved nozzle on either side, propped up by two pipes which fed steam into it from a boiler. The steam, forced out of the nozzles, caused the sphere to rotate.
In other words, the Greeks’ curiosity extended far beyond the purely cerebral. They wanted to understand the nature of matter not in theoretical but in practical terms. What they would have given to be alive today!
The post The Greeks’ curiosity extended far beyond the cerebral appeared first on The Spectator.
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