Technology and Autonomous Mechanisms in the Mediterranean: From Ancient Greece to Byzantium (Part 1)

Here we present selected parts from the very interesting corresponding paper by K. P. Valavanis, G. J. Vachtsevanos, P. J. Antsaklis.

(From the ‘Introduction‘)

The paper objective is to present historical evidence of achievements in science, technology and the making of automation in the ancient Greek world until the era of Byzantium and that the main driving force behind Greek science has been curiosity and desire for knowledge followed by the study of nature.

(From the Chapter ‘Chronological map of Science & Technology‘)

One of the first inventions of the 5th century B.C., not widely known but very important, was the starting mechanism in ancient stadiums, built to prevent untimely starts in races, called ‘hysplex’ (in Greek ύσπληξ), shown in the picture below. Quoting from [Ancient Greek Technology, Proceedings, 1st International Conference, Thessalonica, Greece, 1997., pp. 465- 472], “The system consisted of two horizontal ropes stretched in front of the waist and the knees of the runners. The ends of the ropes were tied at the peaks of vertical wooden posts implanted in mechanisms near the two ends of the starting threshold. The mechanisms were controlled by the starter, who, standing at the back of the runners, could let at the appropriate moment the ropes to fall down, thus permitting all the runners to start simultaneously”.


Mathematics as a discipline was tightly coupled with technological achievements. Mathematics was used not only as a theoretical discipline but also as a tool; mathematics was behind a wide range of applications and the means to engineering designs. It is no
coincidence that Thales, Pythagoras, Euclid, Archimedes, and Apollonius were mathematicians at first. Archimedes was the first one to utilize mathematics in a completely mature fashion for the treatment of a physical problem. Furthermore, the
tradition of formal mechanical treatises, including theoretical and applied mechanics, as distinct domains from the almost completely theoretical mechanics of Archimedes continued in the 3rd century B.C. by Ktesibius whose work, although lost, is known only
through the references of Vitruvius and by Philon of Byzantium. The most comprehensive of the extant mechanical treatises is that of Heron of Alexandria, a recognized mathematician and an excellent mechanic.

(From the Chapter ‘Ancient Greek Science & Technology‘)

Focusing on mechanisms, technological innovation was either related to invention of machines functioning using external means such as, animal or wind power, or related to invention of automatic devices moving by themselves without requiring any human force; such were the inventions of Heron of Alexandria as detailed below.

One of the oldest mechanisms chronicled around 580 B.C., depicting an oil press operated by the weight of stones was found by Fouque in 1879 in Therassia, a small island opposite Thera (Santorini). The only evidence found on an ancient Greek design is on
exhibit at the British museum in London.

It is documented that the first major breakthrough contribution to autonomous mechanisms occurred during the era of Pythagoras (who was Thales’ student for a few years). It is attributed to the Pythagoreans and in particular to Archytas from the city of Tarantas (in south Italy), known as Archytas the Tarantine (also referred to as Leonardo da Vinci of the ancient world). Archytas was not only the inventor of the number ‘one’, 1 (the father of 1) in number theory, but he also was the first engineer. By applying a series of geometric notions and observations to the study of structures, links and joints, he created Mechanics (in Greek Μηχανική). Not only he was drawing mechanisms, he was also building them. As such, in 425 B.C. he created the first Unmanned Aerial Vehicle of all times by building a mechanical bird, a pigeon that could fly by moving its wings getting energy from a mechanism in its stomach. This flying machine flew about 200
meters. However, once all energy was used, the pigeon fell, landed, on earth and could not fly, take off, again.

The introduction of catapults changed the art of war. The first catapults appeared in Syracuse, during the time of the tyrant Dionysius the Elder (Dionysius of Syracuse, 430 – 367 B.C.), who created the first ever scientific research center. The widest and most well known use of catapults occurred during the reign of Philip of Macedonia and his son Alexander the Great who perfected the use of catapults to gain advantage in battles against their enemies. Perfection was the elaboration of mathematical formulas that related the size of the catapults’ components to the weight of the projectiles or the size of the bolts that were about to shoot by the Alexandrian mechanics. The pictures below illustrate two types of catapult that subverted martial tactics and dominated for many centuries the battlefield;


The pictures below depict reproduced designs by N. Orfanoudakis of other types of catapults; a catapult used to throw ‘Greek fire’ and the theoretical design of a portable mechanism to throw ‘Greek fire’, composed of pipes coupled with a tormentum serving as a power source.

Similar mechanisms are shown in the pictures below.


Several inventions are attributed to Archimedes, who, according to Drachmann, was “…the greatest mathematical and engineering genius of ancient times”. He was perhaps the first to use mathematics to solve physical problems. The picture below shows Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing for the ‘architronito’, the steam gun invented by Archimedes and its modern reproduction by J. G. Sakas in 1981,

and the next picture below illustrates the endless screw.


Other inventions by Archimedes include cranes and solar mirrors. The steam gun created the foundation for the theory of hydrodynamics. Information about the steam
gun is due to the Italian Petrarca (1304-1374 A.D.), but it was Leonardo da Vinci who explained its operation and stated that it could through a bullet weighted 1 τάλαντο about 1,100 meters away.

Another invention attributed to Archimedes is the water clock, shown in the picture below that stood tall more than 4 meters (although there are researchers claiming that it was invented by Heron or Philon, and others).


As stated in [C. Lazos, Archimedes, The Intelligent Engineer, Aeolos Publications, 4th Edition, Athens 1995.], there are three sources from Vitruvius, Pappos the Alexandrian and an Arabic document that provide evidence regarding this invention by Archimedes, as reproduced by the German scientists Wiedemann and Hauser. It is important to state that it looks like there was progress in this area before Ktesibius invented his water clock (see below) without knowing exactly when it started. But since Archimedes (287-212 B.C.) and Ktesibius (285-222 B.C.) lived almost at the same time, it may be that either Ktesibius improved Archimedes’ clock, or the two invented it independently of each other.

(End of Part 1)

Research: Anastasius Philoponus


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: