Wednesday, 25 September 2019 17:05

Hellenistic Technology

Hellenistic Technology

Ancient Greek Technology was already developed since the Mycenaean period, and up to the Classical times. Then, Aristotle (Politics,   1255.6, 35) predicated a political utopia based only on the advent of automatic and robotic machines, in order to eliminate oppression of rulers and slave-owners. This technological revolution was indeed conceived during the Hellenistic period, mainly in its "alma terra", Alexandria.

In the Hellenistic era, ancient Greek technology reached its zenith based on the earlier innovations of the Greek engineers employed by Alexander the Great during his campaign: a tunneller, an urban planner, a hydraulic engineer, and so on. This military example shows the very positive role that the enlargement of the scale of public affairs would play in the field of Technology.

Before attempting to explain the great upsurge in technology from the end of the 4th   c. BCE until the 1st c. CE, the main technological   achievements   of this period should be outlined:

a) Technical works

  • Specialization in major land-reclamation projects, such as that of Lake Ptechon (Euboea), which was the first contracted work in history with a capitalist B.O.T. system (Build-Operate-Transfer). The Ptolemies also dried up a large portion of Lake Mareotis,   so that Alexandria could be extended.
  • The multi -centered   arch bridge in Rhodes   (ca. 316 BCE) and the corbelled bridge in Elefthema (middle of the 4th c. BCE), prior to the Roman development of the arch bridges.
  • The "Lighthouse"   (a tower, appro 100 m high, in Alexandria) most likely with an internal installation for the mechanical lifting of large quantities of fuel.
  • Pergamon's   four aqueducts that brought 2000 cubic meters of water to the city each day, through a triple pipeline and siphons under 15 atm. of pressure.

b) Shipbuilding

  • The characteristic   example is the gigantic ship "Syracusia",   with its massive tonnage, that Hieron sent as a gift to Prolemy III. A similar magnification trend   is observed   in the   Thalamegos   (the yacht) of Ptolemy IV. Similarly, the total number of ships of the Prolemaic fleet (4300?) was also excessively   large.

c) Military technology

  • "Helepolis", the multi-storied,   armored, mobile siege tower (40-60 m high), known to have been used by Dionysius the Elder at Syracuse, but mostly by Demetrius Poliorketes.
  • Invention of catapults with a spring and compressed   air (Ctesibius, 285-222 BCE) and the theoretical and experimental research of Philo of Byzantium (ca. 250 BCE) on catapults with torsional springs.

d) Machinery

  • Pumps: Ctesibius' two-stroke piston, the "drum" and "chain" of Philo of Byzantium (to whom we also owe the first water-powered chain-pump, as well as the Archimedean   screw pump.
  • The huge cranes with which Archimedes   (287-212   BCE),   from behind the walls of Syracuse,   snatched the Romans'   giant mobile siege towers, and destroyed them.
  • Automaton:   The Greeks' myths became a reality - now, not only the gods had automata. Philo of Byzantium   (3rd c.BCE.) and Heron of Alexandria   (ca. 1st c. CE) wrote books "On Automation",   nowadays preserved   in their entirety […].
  • Gearwheels:     In roughly   the same period, Aristotle   refers (in his Mechanics 848a) to the transmission of motion through tangent circular wheels, and to their applications. Shortly after, Ctesibius would use gears in his water clock, and Philon's pumps appear to have made similar use of them; just as odometers later (Fig. 6).
  • Steam power: Heron's aeolopile rotated by means of steam. Even though there is no evidence of its practical application, the transmission of motion from one axle to another by means of a belt was already known in Philon's hydraulic pumps. Therefore, it was only a matter of time until rotation (with the aid of steam) would be transmitted (by means of a chain) to a pump. After all, Heron himself had already designed the transmission of a wind-rotor's circular motion to Ctesibius' two-stroke pump used in "Hydraulis" (the first pipe-organ).

e) Agriculture

  • An indicative example of developments in this field is the olive screw press, an invention of Heron.

f) Metal-working

  • All metallurgical technologies had already (since the 4th c. BCE) reached their peak. Metal-working had at its disposal, then, various alloys for various applications, from the production of statues to weaponry, and from the manufacturing of well-made domestic utensils to gearwheels. The basic techniques were casting or hammering of metal sheets, but the metal lathe was also utilized.

g) Chemistry

  • Following the basic principles of chemical transmutation, which had been introduced already by the pre-Socratic philosophers and the Stoics, empirical chemistry of processing metals, precious stones, and dyes of all kinds (through a huge variety of reagents) was initiated by Volos from Mentes, outside Alexandria (ca. 200 BCE), and culminated in Alexandria itself, between the 1stc. BCE and the 4thc. CE.

h) Scientific instruments

One should certainly not expect to find an ancient Greek text describing Technology's "intention" to serve Science. However, we have evidence of the production of useful artifacts for scientific measurements:

  • Measuring time: "water-clocks".
  • Odometer (similar to today's taximeters).
  • Astrolabes of all sorts.
  • Precision balances.
  • Surveying instruments, like the level, the dioptra, etc.
  • Medical   instruments:     surgical   and   orthopedic   implements   (by physicians such as Andreas,   Nymphodorus,  a.o.), as well as the special sphygmometer   of Herophilus (also a physician) in Alexandria (ca. 300 BCE).
  • "Globe-making" (spheropoeia): simple figurative replicas of the sky with fixed celestial bodies (Cicero, On the Republic 14.22) or completely functional models, like the second planetarium of Archimedes, which Cicero describes in detail - and, of course, the Antikythera Mechanism.

Von Staden's view (Yale University) is interesting in this respect: "The parallels between Erasistratos' model of the heart, and central features of the new Alexandrian mechanical technology, are striking" – a reference to the two chambers and valves of the heart, and Ctesibius' pump.

i) Artifacts for Culture

Just as technology served every kind of need that could not be met by natural means, it was logical (especially during the Hellenistic period) that technology would also serve the needs of people in communication   and culture in general. It is, however, surprising that, in a significant portion of the current international bibliography, these marvelous technical discoveries are undervalued by ideological characterizations such as "amusing contrivances", though they constitute exceptional technological achievements -   even with today's knowledge.

Indicative examples include:

  • Athletics: The hysplex, the instrument that, by means of a torsional spring, allowed the racers in the stadium to start at the same time.
  • Music: Ctesibius' Hydraulis, the musical instrument that functioned with compressed air that was conveyed (by means of keys) to the appropriate pipes (like those found at Dion).
  • Automatic Theatre:   The seven-minute long automatic theatre of Philon and of Heron, which worked without any external interference, thanks to a highly intricate internal winding of thin rope, approximately 100 m long.
  • Telecommunications: The hydraulic telegraph of Aeneas Tacticus, and the 'pyrseia' of Cleoxenos and Democleitos: transmission of a digital visual sign by means of torches (Polybius, History X, 43-47).
  • Religion: Automatic opening of temple gates, once the believer lit a flame at the outer altar (Hero, Pneumatics, A, 38), occurred thanks to the expansion of heated air.

Despite the extreme brevity in quoting the above technological achievements of the Hellenistic period, it becomes evident that the multitude of artifacts, and, especially, the range of needs they served, are highly characteristic features of the period; it was a clearly technophile period in the history of mankind - that culminated in the first analog computer, the Antikythera Mechanism.

Tassios T. P., On Technology In Ancient Greece, 2018 Angelakis, Athens