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Ancient Greek Inventions Still Used Today

ancient greek inventions
The Parthenon in Athens. Many inventions still used today were created by the ancient Greeks. Credit: Paolina27/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Though some may not know it, many ancient Greek inventions created centuries ago still play an important role in society today. Aside from core theoretical concepts such as philosophy and democracy, among others things, ancient Greeks contributed many mechanical inventions to the world that are still essential to our lives.

These devices range from the simplest objects like umbrellas to the more complex technological mechanisms such as computers. In the present, we use them without thinking. At that time, however, they were absolutely revolutionary. Here is a list of a few of the objects that changed the way people lived in the past as well as present.

Alarm clocks and odometers

The first Ancient Greek invention on the list that is still in use is the alarm clock. It was created in ancient Greece by Ctesibus, a Hellenistic engineer and inventor.

Much to the dismay of all those who love to sleep in, Ctesibus cleverly developed an elaborate system of dropping pebbles onto a gong in order to make a sound. That sound was set to occur at specific time intervals that could be used to wake people up or just remind them of important events throughout the day.

ancient greek inventions
Ctesibius’ water clock — the world’s first alarm clock — as depicted by an architect in the 17th century. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

The odometer is another Greek invention. The tool measures the distance traveled by a vehicle. Yet, it was also invented and used in Greece. There is a great debate, however, as to which ancient Greek came up with the invention.

Some say it was Heron of Alexandria, one of the most prolific inventors of antiquity, who created the odometer. Yet, others claim it was Archimedes who first constructed the incredibly useful tool. Despite the lack of clarity surrounding the identity of its creator, the odometer aided ancient Greek civilization in constructing roads, for example.

This enabled them to link the towns at the edges of the vast Greek world by an intricate web of roadways, increasing trade. This, in turn, created an important interconnection across the ancient world.

Central heating and thermometers

Greek sites Troy
The Library of Celsus at Ephesus. Credit: Benh LIEU SONG /Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

The ancient Greeks also created central heating and thermometers, inventions that man could not live without nowadays. According to archaeological discoveries at the ancient Greek site in Turkey, the Temple of Ephesus was kept warm in antiquity by using flues under its floor to circulate the heat from fires kept burning underneath the sprawling complex.

The original concept for today’s thermometer also dates back almost two thousand years. The Greeks of Alexandria were the first who figured out how air expands when exposed to high temperatures. Philo of Byzantium then applied that technique to create the world’s first.

Maps and levers

The Greek scientist Anaximander was the one who conceptualized the ideas of longitude and latitude, both of which are required to create an accurate map. Later, Strabo and Eratosthenes created the first examples using his discoveries. At the time, those maps spanned the entire known world.

ancient greek inventions
Archimedes’ Lever. Credit:Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

It was the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes who described the lever in 206 B.C., which had and continues to have an unlimited amount of uses in all types of construction,.

Eventually, his invention made the construction of iconic, massive buildings of the ancient era possible. The lever was even used to help ships disembark from port and set sail.

Automatic doors and vending machines

ancient greek inventions
Heron of Alexandria, as shown in a 9th century manuscript. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Another invention that we constantly use without any idea of its origin is the automatic door. Of course, its ancient prototype was powered by steam rather than electricity. Heron of Alexandria created a hydraulic system and installed it at an Alexandrian temple, complete with fire, water, and steam, which triggered a system to open a pair of curtains.

Heron was a brilliant Greek mathematician and engineer who resided in his native city of Alexandria, Roman Egypt, and was one of the greatest experimenters of his time. The next time you kick a vending machine trying in vain to release your snack from the grips of the mechanic claws, think of him and how far it has come over the years.

The mathematician created the very first vending machine in the world in approximately 10 to 70 AD. Of course, in those days, you would put a coin into a slot at the top of the machine for a dose of holy water rather than potato chips. When a coin was inserted, it landed on a pan. Its weight then triggered the opening of a valve that held the holy water, releasing a small amount of the liquid.

Cranes and cement

crane
An ancient Roman crane, which was modeled after the earlier ancient Greek invention. Credit: Michael Gunther/ Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 4.0

The ancient Greeks, known for their magnificent temples and other constructions, also invented the crane back in 6th century BC. This undoubtedly helped in lifting the heavy stones that were utilized in building their temples and other structures.

Many blocks they used on temples such as the Parthenon still have obvious gaps on them from the cranes that lifted them into place. In antiquity, ancient Greeks lifted heavy blocks by stringing ropes, attached to the wooden cranes, through the holes in the stones.

Cement is another useful material building element the ancient Greeks invented around 100 B.C. They made it by adding limestone to a mixture of clay, water, and sand. Although more commonly found in the Roman world, in antiquity, they often used it to create homes and other buildings, though not structures like the Parthenon. They constructed buildings by utilizing the “dry” method without mortar.

Umbrellas

umbrella
An ancient Greek vase depicting an umbrella. C. 440. Credit: Sailko/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-3.0

While life in ancient Greece was much different than it is today, we still have many things in common, one being rain. Depictions in ancient wall paintings, for example, show Greeks using umbrellas made of bones or wooden sticks covered by leaves or wood panels as far back as the 4th century BC.

Ancient Greeks used umbrellas to block both the rain and the sun. However, men considered umbrellas highly feminine and rarely used them themselves. Most often, slaves or servants carried them to shield the women of the upper class from the elements.

The world’s first computer

ancient greek inventions
The Antikythera Mechanism, known worldwide as the world’s first computer, was created by ancient Greeks. Credit: National Archaeological Museum of Athens

The day the Antikythera Mechanism was discovered in 1901 is celebrated across the scientific world as one of the most significant and impressive inventions of the ancient Greeks. This astoundingly intricate machine is a device which many scientists consider the world’s first computer.

Greek sponge divers discovered the Antikythera Mechanism in an ancient shipwreck in 1901. After numerous studies, researchers estimated it was created some time between 150 BC and 100 BC. A later study places it at 205 BC, just seven years after the death of Archimedes.

Antikythera shipwreck
Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture

Now—exactly 120 years later—a brilliant group of researchers from University College London (UCL) has created the astounding machine once again using 3-D imagery. Its recreation was a thing of amazing genius and great beauty. It also allowed a new and better understanding of its function and how it worked.

As only eighty-two of the mechanism’s original fragments exist—comprising just one third of the entire calculator—researchers were initially stymied as to its full capabilities. Trying to reach an understanding of the front of the mechanism containing most of the gears has in fact been a bit of a Holy Grail for marine archaeologists and astronomers.

Using computer modelling, the UCL researchers were able to reconstruct the ancient device however, allowing them to grasp its use more fully. Employing the information gleaned from recent x-rays of the computer and their knowledge of ancient Greek mathematics, they were then able to determine that it functioned according to cycles of the planets Venus and Saturn.

Ancient Greeks at the forefront of science and technology

The items the ancient Greeks invented might be commonplace for us today. Yet, in antiquity, they marked the birth of science and technology, the two elements at the roots of man’s social, cultural, and economic advancement.

It is thanks to them, therefore, that we can appreciate much of what we as a society and humans have achieved in the time since. For what would the world be like now without the devices the ancient Greeks so ingeniously invented so many years ago?

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