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Greek Inventors

The progress the Greeks made in understanding and applying engineering principles, in everything from hydraulics to automatic mechanisms, is impressive. Many of the discoveries were lost with the fire in Alexandria, the invasion of the Romans, and had to be rediscovered in the Renaissance.

Here are just a few of the geniuses, and a few of the inventions that we know about.


Also transcripted as Tesibius or Ktesibios, Ctesibius was a mathematician and inventor who lived from 285-222 BC, in Alexandria. This is the approximate life period as Archimedes. He is best known for his experiments with compressed air.

At a time when gas was not understood, air was not considered a substance. This makes Ctesibius ' inventions based on the elasticity of air even more remarkable. He is known as the 'Father of Pneumatics'.

He also developed a complex water clock which could work for the whole day with great precision, with continuous self-regulation and even adjustment for summer and winter day lengths.

Unfortunately, none of his written work has survived, although Athenaeus, Vitruvius and Philo of Byzantium make references to him.

The known inventions:

  • A counterweight-adjustable mirror (which he developed during his day job as a barber).
  • The hydraulis, a water organ.
  • A water clock (clepsydra, which means 'water thief'), which was the most accurate clock invented, till the 17th century when Huygens invented the pendulum clock (1656).
  • Water pump producing jets of water through bi-valve force pumps, and for lifting water from wells.
  • The siphon has been attributed to him
  • A catapult which worked on the principle of compressed air in cylinders.
  • Automatic regulation. Ctesibius invented a system of self-closing valve, which was the first known automatic regulation system.

Philo of Byzantium

ca. 280 - 220 BCE. He came from Byzantium (Istanbul), but lived and worked in Alexandria. He was a contemporary of Ctesibius and Archimedes, although there is some degree of uncertainty about his exact dates.

Philo has left many written works, some extant only in a Latin translation. These include discourses on mathematics, mechanics, civil engineering (including harbour construction), artillery, air and water pressure devices, mechanical toys, siege machines and missiles, and even secret writing.

His inventions:

  • Escapement mechanism, applied to a washstand and clocks.
  • Chain drive for a crossbow with automatic reloading, utilising the principle of the windlass.
  • Philo applied the gimbal principle to an octagonal ink-pot. The pot could be filled in any of 8 sides, yet the ink would never spill out, whichever way it was rotated.
  • Geometric solution to 'doubling the cube', finding the intersection of a rectangular hyperbola and a circle.

Hero of Alexandria

c. 10 - c. 70 BCE, a Greek in Alexandria, which was in roman-controlled Eygpt.

Hero, or Heron, is often attributed to be the founder of the scientific method, by combining theory and experimental method.

The Lost Palimpsest of Archimedes

Archimedes Palimpsest
Archimedes Palimpsest: his pages were cut in two and rebound into a liturgical text

In 1906, a long lost document was discovered by a Danish researcher in Istanbul. It could not be read until the early 2000s, when technology provided a means to reveal the true extent of Archimedes' genius.

Ostomachion puzzle: a type of geometrical jigsaw illustrated by Archimedes

Among the many great inventions attributed to Archimedes is the system of 'exhaustion', to calculate a value of pi, the relationship between the diameter and circumference of a circle. In utilising an ever increasing number of straight lines circumscribing the circle, so that the length could be measured ever more precisely, Archimedes invented the concept of 'limits'. This would take the form of calculus 1800 years later, with Newton and Leibnitz.

Archimedes Palimpsest
The examination of Archimedes' Palimpsest, using x-ray and multi-spectral analysis, revealed his great insights previously obscured by medieval liturgical overwriting
Multispectral imaging of Archimedes Palimpsest
Multispectral imaging of Archimedes Palimpsest

Manufacture of Parchment

Palimpsests are not made from paper, but parchment, or animal hide. This was a great deal more expensive to manufacture than paper, but it is actually lucky that paper was a relatively later invention, since very old documents have been preserved better on parchment.

After curing, the parchment is hung on a frame to dry before scraping

An animal hide, for example calfskin, is used. It is cut from the carcass and stretched out. To remove the hair, lime is smeared over the hair side. The skin is then folded and tied into a tight bundle, and submerged in horse manure for several weeks.

After this delicate marination, it is opened up and the hair can be easily scraped away. The hide is then washed to remove the lime residues.

The hide is then stretched out on a frame and pulled taut. It is then left to dry out over several days. When it is dry, the remaining fat can be scraped away more easily, leaving a parchment which can be written on.

Content © Andrew Bone. All rights reserved. Created : April 10, 2016 Last updated :May 7, 2016

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