Genius of the Ancient World

The book About automata by Hero of Alexandria (1589 edition)
The book About Automata by Hero of Alexandria (1589 edition)


When we think about history, we often picture the Industrial Revolution as the pinnacle of human achievement that has since evolved into the modern world we enjoy today.

The Industrial Revolution spun incredible feats of engineering. Perhaps the most important of them all was harnessing electricity, which in turn spun many more inventions such as the telegraph, the telephone, the incandescent light bulb, etc.

In other areas of physics, we saw its physical applications in inventions such as spinning, weaving and sewing machines, and in the creation of the steam engine, the internal combustion engine and the automobile, among many wonderful and varied creations. Although it is worth noting that many inventions were simply due to the re-discovery of old inventions that were forgotten about or never properly understood in the first place, such as the case of the steam engine.

Industrial Revolution
Industrial Revolution

There are usually 5 main reasons historians list as the causes behind the Industrial Revolution: Capitalism, European Imperialism, Mining of Resources, and Agricultural and Scientific Revolution. But one could argue, and rightly so, that they were not the only causes and that many other factors were also influential in propelling the Industrial Revolution.

It is often forgotten that breakthroughs within the various sciences did not occur overnight. They were the result of thousands of years of studies by men and women that came before them.

One such man was Hero of Alexandria.

Hero of Alexandria

Heron ho Alexandreus, known as Hero of Alexandria, or Heron of Alexandria in the Western world, was a Greek-Egyptian teacher, mathematician and engineer who lived and worked in Alexandria, Roman Egypt in the 1st century AD (c. 10 AD – c. 70 AD).

Hero taught courses in mathematics, physics, pneumatics, hydraulic engineering and cybernetics at the Mouseion or Musaeum at Alexandria. Cybernetics as a field of study would appear in the 21st century.

In the field of mathematics, he is mostly remembered for Heron’s formula and the Heronian triangle named after him.

Heron's Formula
Heron’s Formula

Much of Hero’s original writings and designs have been lost, but from what has been preserved, it is clear that Hero had an impressive grasp of physics and applied engineering. In his surviving manuscripts, he wrote descriptions of how to calculate surfaces and volumes of diverse objects. He also wrote about lengths, distances and how to lift heaving objects.

Hero also described the use of pantographs, which are mechanical parallelograms linked to produce identical movements. Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen used pantographs to create a Mechanical Chess Master.

Heron’s work also included machines capable of working with air, steam and pressure, as well as descriptions of war machines.

Pantograph Animation
Pantograph Animation – Wikipedia

After much experimentation in the field of optics, Hero formulated the principle of the shortest path of light, currently known as Fermat’s Principle.

Hero of Alexandria is frequently regarded as the finest experimental of antiquity, a true Genius of the Ancient World whose mind can only be compared to that of Leonardo da Vinci.

The Many Inventions of Hero of Alexandria

Hero is also credited with having invented and/or built various working machines and engines. Below are some of his most important creations.

The Aeolipile

Hero wrote a well-known depiction of an aeolipile, aeolipyle, or eolipile, from the Greek aioloupule, also known as Hero’s Engine. The aeolipile is considered to be the first steam engine. A primitive steam-powered engine consisting of a simple, bladeless, radial steam turbine that rotates as a central reservoir of water is heated.

The Aeolipile. Illustration from Hero's Pneumatica
The Aeolipile. Illustration from Hero’s Pneumatica

The aeolipile was first described by Vitrius a century earlier, but Hero is credited to be the first person to have built it.

Hero’s Fountain

Hero’s Fountain is a stand-alone, self-contained non-perpetual motion hydraulic machine invented by Hero of Alexandria. The machine appeared to operate on its own, not needing an external water source. His applications are still used today as demonstration principles of hydraulics and pneumatics.

Simplified Heron's fountain principle
Simplified Heron’s fountain principle
Schematic Presentation of Hero’s Fountain
The Anemurion – The First Windmill and The First Wind Organ

The Anemurion or windmill was unknown to the Greeks and Romans. In 62 AD, Hero describes in his manuscripts an ‘a wind-organ, the piston providing the air for the organ pipes being moved by a wheel which has oar-like scoops as in the so-called wind motors’

The Anemurion - Heron's Windmill
The Anemurion – Heron’s Windmill

The Anemurion is the earliest known record of harnessing wind on land.

The first wind-wheel-operated organ was used to produce music. His invention used a set of gears and air currents to go through a series of tubes and pipes which in turn produced a certain assortment of sounds and ‘music’. Wind power usage will not appear in the Western world until the 12th century.

Wind-powered Organ (reconstruction)
Wind-powered Organ (reconstruction)
The Ctesibian Machine

A force pump with pistons, cylinders and valves named after his inventor Ctesibius. Hero used this device to build his ‘fire engine’, which is comparable to a modern petrol engine.

Hero’s Lamps

Hero of Alexandria invented 3 types of lamps.

The First two types of lamps were Lamps in which the Oil could be raised by Water contained within its Stand.

A Lamp in which the Oil is raised by Water, as required.
A Lamp in which the Oil is raised by Water, as required.
A Lamp in which the Oil can be raised by Water contained within its Stand.
A Lamp in which the Oil can be raised by Water contained within its Stand.

The third type of lamp was a Lamp in which the Oil is raised by blowing air into it.

A Lamp in which the Oil is raised by blowing Air into it.
A Lamp in which the Oil is raised by blowing air into it.
The Syringe

The instrument was named Pyulcus. It allowed delivering a steady flow of liquid by using his understanding of the principles of air and water displacement.

Pyulkos - The First Syringe by Hero of Alexandria
Pyulkos – The First Syringe by Hero of Alexandria
The First Vending Machine

The First Vending Machine ever created was a Holy Water Dispenser. The machine contained a series of levers, weights and counter-weights so that when a coin was inserted into the slot it would dispense a set amount of holy water.

Hero's First Vending Machine
First Vending Machine – Holy Water Dispenser
Heron’s Odometer – The First Taximeter

The invention of the Odometer is disputed and might have been invented by Archimedes. Nevertheless, it is said that Hero of Alexandria constructed the first machine capable of measuring a ‘Roman Mile’. The diameter of a Chariot’s wheel was exactly 4 feet, which then turns 400 times to measure a Roman mile.

It is said that Leonardo da Vinci tried to replicate Heron’s Odometer but failed.

A reconstruction of Heron’s hodometer
Working mechanism of Heron's Odometer
The working mechanism of Heron’s Odometer
Weapons of War

Hero of Alexandria is said to have built various weapons of war. It is unclear whether these machines were conceived and invented by him, or simply built by him based on the works of other engineers. In this particular case, it seems most likely that he simply built them. Nevertheless, the machines he constructed were in used in various wars during his lifetime. Some of the examples are as follows:

The Cheirobalistra

The Cheirobalistra was a device capable of hurling arrows over a large distance. In this device, the springs made of twisted hair or tendons were stretched in two separate metal casings. A metal stud is attached at the top of each of the field frames, to hold them together. Another stud was attached to the bottom of the field frames and the base of the engine, to hold the spring casings in place. . A small handle wheel at the back of the base was used to load the springs.

The cheiroballistra as reconstructed by E. W. Marsden

Heron’s cheirobalistra was the most advanced two-armed torsion engine used by the Roman army and was probably introduced around 84 AD and was definitely in service in 101–102 AD, as attested in Trajan’s Column.

The Palintonon – The Stone-Thrower Catapult

A device similar to the cheirobalistra, but much bigger and powerful was the Palintonon. This device is described in chapter 3 of Belopoeica and was made for throwing stones. It appears that it could fire an 8-pound stone over 300 yards.
A similar but smaller device to throw arrows was called Euthytonon.

Heron’s palintonon (stone-thrower)
The Dioptra

The Dioptra was triangulation device used for astronomical and land survey. It could be used as a level, a distance-measuring device, an angle-measuring instrument and also to to determine the direction of roads, tunnels or other structures.

Dioptra as described by Heron of Alexandria
Dioptra as described by Heron of Alexandria
Inventions for Theather

Hero also invented many other mechanisms used in theatre.

Mechanical Puppet Show

Hero of Alexandria created a mobile automatic theatre with programmable positions. The theatre displayed the god Dionysus in the centre of a temple altar while small figures rotated around him.

Hero of Alexandria, Automata 13 Sketch of an automaton, a wine and milk dispensing Bacchus figure in a small temple - Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana
Hero of Alexandria, Automata 13 Sketch of an automaton, wine and milk dispensing Bacchus figure in a small temple – Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana
Modern Reconstruction of Hero’s Automatic Theatre

Hero also invented and/or built many other types of Automata, using gears, pulleys, weights, ropes and also steam or hydraulic pressure.

Reconstruction of one of many “automata” of Heron by Giovanni Battista Aleoti 1589. Hercules and the Dragon. When Hercules hits the head of the dragon the dragon shoots water on his face.
Reconstruction of one of many “automata” of Heron by Giovanni Battista Aleoti 1589. Hercules and the Dragon. When Hercules hits the head of the dragon the dragon shoots water on his face.
The Marvelous Altar

A device in which figures will appear to dance around an altar.

The Marvelous Altar - Heron of Alexandria
The Marvelous Altar – According to Hero’s description: “Fire being lighted on an altar, figures will appear to execute a round dance. The altars should be transparent, and of glass or horn. From the fire-place there starts a tube which runs to the base of the altar, where it revolves on a pivot, while its upper part revolves in a tube fixed to the fire-place. To the tube there should be adjusted other tubes (horizontal) in communication with it, which cross each other at right angles, and which are bent in opposite directions at their extremities. There is likewise fixed to it a disk upon which are attached figures which form a round. When the fire of the altar is lighted, the air, becoming heated, will pass into the tube; but being driven from the latter, it will pass through the small bent tubes and … cause the tube as well as the figures to revolve.” Source: Hellenica World
Thunder-Making Machine

This was used in theatres to announce the entrances and exits of the gods. It is believed that this was also used in Temples of worship to impress the people into believing certain God-like manifestations were happening inside Temples. See ‘Temple Inventions’ below.

It is believed the machine itself used a series of levers to open a trap door that would then release a series of brass balls that could cascade down into a tin sheet.

Sound of Thunder - Thunder Making Machine
Sound of Thunder – Thunder-Making Machine
Temple Inventions

Many of Hero’s Inventions were used in worship temples to awe and mesmerize templegoers into believing miracles were happening at the sacred palaces.

Automatic Doors

The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria (or Pneumatica), Hero describes the mechanism of a machine working under the action of water and steam to open Temple Doors using fire on an altar.

Hero of Alexandria's depiction of Opening The Temple Doors
Depiction of Opening The Temple Doors
Labelled Diagram of Hero's Steam
Labelled Diagram of Hero’s Steam – Source
A automatic device that opens the temple door if a fire burns on a altar
An automatic device that opens the temple door if a fire burns on an altar

Hero built a set of ‘magical jars’ whose cleverly constructed structure of air holes and siphons could swap the pouring between water and wine from the same vessel.

However, like Leonardo, this skill did not go unnoticed by the aristocracy and the priesthood, for here was a man who could convince the common people that god was actually present in a temple – for how else could these icons and animals move and speak?

The Heretic Magazine
The trick ‘water to wine’ jug made by Hero of Alexandria in the 1st century AD
The trick ‘water to wine’ jug made by Hero of Alexandria in the 1st century AD
The Philosopher’s Stone

Another device of Hero’s invention that could swap one liquid for another, for example, change water into wine.

Philosopher's stone, Heron of Alexandria
Philosopher’s stone, Heron of Alexandria: Source: Hellenica World.
The Automatic Goblet

Hero’s Automatic Goblet is also known as ‘The Never-Ending Goblet of Wine’ or as the ‘self-filling Goblet’. It was a cleverly constructed device which always kept a goblet full of wine independent of the quantity removed.

Automatic goblet, Heron of Alexandria
Automatic goblet, Heron of Alexandria
The Never Ending Goblet of Wine

According to The Heretic Magazine, Hero designed a lot of devices for temples, therefore ‘it is entirely possible that one of Hero of Alexandria’s devices was used by a new sect of Judaism in the first century’… making it ‘possible for the Catholic Church to have [incorporated] [Hero’s] ‘account of this well-known party trick as a cornerstone of its new belief system.’

To understand the significance of how much Automata influenced religion in the Ancient World, it is worth reading “Mechanical Miracles: Automata in Ancient Greek Religion“, a thesis by Tatiana Bur.

Greek and Roman Technology: A Sourcebook: Annotated Translations of Greek and Latin Texts and Documents.” By John W. Humphery, John P. Oleson and Andrew N. Sherwood.

And also, “Engineering in the Ancient World“, By John Gray Landels


From the records that have arrived to us throughout the centuries, we know that Heron of Alexandria invented and/or built at least 80 different machines. Outside of the scope of this text, some of those machines are said to include the first programmable robots using a simple binary system, and also the first ‘talking machine’ from which statues could speak in any artificial way.

The number of devices that he developed during his lifetime is believed to be much higher than the records that we have of his works, though they have been lost through the ages.

The works listed above are only a small fraction of his Pneumatica , Automata and Belopoeica. A full bibliography of Hero’s works was published in 5 distinctive volumes in 1903 and they are divided as follows:

  • Pneumatica:  a description of machines working on air, steam or water pressure, including the hydraulis or water organ
  • Automata: a description of machines which enable wonders in banquets and possibly also theatrical contexts by mechanical or pneumatical means (e.g. automatic opening or closing of temple doors, statues that pour wine and milk, etc.)
  • Mechanica: preserved only in Arabic, written for architects, containing means to lift heavy objects
  • Metrica: a description of how to calculate surfaces and volumes of diverse objects
  • Belopoeica: a description of war machines
  • Catoptrica: about the progression of light, reflection and the use of mirrors

There are other works of engineering that are wrongly attributed to him, and some such as Geodesia and Geoponica from which only small fragments are preserved.

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