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Pythagorean Cup From Ancient Greece Pranks Greedy Drinkers

Pythagorean cup, an invention from ancient Greece.
The Pythagorean Cup, an invention from ancient Greece, shows that Greek heads weren’t in the intellectual clouds all the time. Credit: Alessiomela/CC By SA 4.0

The Pythagorean Cup, an invention of the ancient Greeks, shows that their heads weren’t in the intellectual clouds all the time. They were down-to-earth enough to make people laugh a bit at themselves, particularly if they greedily poured themselves too much wine.

This marvel of ceramic engineering has a series of holes and coils inside that will allow your wine—or whatever else you are drinking—to slowly drain away if you give yourself a little too much of it.

This invention of an ancient Greek mathematician might be just that perfect prank gift that you could give your buddies at Christmastime.

The invention of the Pythagorean Cup is indeed attributed to the great Pythagoras of Samos, who is credited with the theory regarding right triangles. But his mind wasn’t merely fixated on the infinite, the world of the abstract that few could fathom. Instead, he was apparently interested in getting the better of his drinking buddies who took more than their share of that great ancient Greek wine.

The normal-looking ceramicware cup has a strange column in its center, but other than that, it doesn’t look too mysterious. The kicker comes when an unsuspecting person fills the cup past a certain level. That’s when the liquid starts draining out of the bottom.

Pythagorean Cup
Pythagorean Cups show that the ancient Greek thinkers had a fun, prankster side to them, too. Credit: Materialscientist /C BY-SA 3.0

Who could have created such a diabolical invention? Apparently, it was none other than the man who brought the world the Pythagorean theorem, which explains the fundamental relation in Euclidean geometry among the three sides of a right triangle. He may have also devised the doctrine of musica universalis, which holds that the planets move according to mathematical equations and thus resonate to produce an inaudible symphony of music.

So how does this prank cup work? A tiny opening at the base of the center column is the key. When the cup is overfilled, the liquid seeps inside it, moving though a coil that ultimately leads to a hole at the bottom of the cup.

If you aren’t greedy about taking more than your share of wine, then the liquid will never make it through the entire system of coils. But if you are, watch out!

You can get your own Pythagorean cup in shops almost anywhere on the streets of Greece, particularly on the island of Crete and online, as well.

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