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A technological Hero
June 20, 2006 11:10 AM   Subscribe

Leonardo is overrated: the steam turbine was invented two millennia ago by Hero of Alexandria who developed the aeolipile as a toy. Hero was also responsible for the first vending machine (for holy water) and hydraulic automatic temple doors, along with advances in areas as diverse as physics and mathematics. A translation of Hero's influential Pneumatics is available online, featuring illustrated examples of many of his inventions, many of which are related to clever devices for drinking or prayer, or both.
posted by blahblahblah (18 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hero was pretty cool - a shame that slave labour was more practical than steam.
posted by porpoise at 11:22 AM on June 20, 2006


But I've never heard of "the Hero Code;" clearly he doesn't have a strong self-marketing strategy.
posted by dopamine at 11:26 AM on June 20, 2006


This is a great example that people two thousand years ago were every bit as smart as we are now; Hero would have been a phenomenal engineer if he had been born 2000 years later.

The only thing really separating us from the cavemen is all the things we've learned about how the world works.
posted by Malor at 11:28 AM on June 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this great post! Heron is one of my favorite historical figures, so anything else I can read about him is much appreciated. The holy water vending machine always puts me in a good mood.
posted by prostyle at 11:40 AM on June 20, 2006


Hero would have been a phenomenal engineer if he had been born 2000 years later.

would have been? I'd argue he was a great engineer 2000 years ago.

The point about the past is a good one though - much as I know it's not true, I have a hard time remembering that people thousands of years ago had just as much going on as we do today. In some ways, perhaps more: I think language and personal interaction is becoming less complex and lower bandwidth over time, as we build ourselves into larger scale systems. Anyhow, posts like this help remind me of this fact, and I love to see that curtain of "benighted prehistory" get pushed further and further back.
posted by freebird at 11:49 AM on June 20, 2006


Hmm, the article says that steam turbines powered most ships, but wern't most of those powered by steam-based piston engines not turbines? Anything that goes 'pop pop pop' like most of those old steam engines is a piston engine, not a turbine.
posted by delmoi at 11:49 AM on June 20, 2006


The point about the past is a good one though - much as I know it's not true, I have a hard time remembering that people thousands of years ago had just as much going on as we do today. In some ways, perhaps more

Maybe for the lucky few aristocrats. Everyone else was a poor farmer or a slave.
posted by delmoi at 11:51 AM on June 20, 2006


So only the lucky aristocrats had a rich culture and intellectual life? Modern brains? I have to disagree. I do think there's an interesting point there - we tend to define intellectual pursuits and cultural achievements in terms of "high culture" and the elite.

I think, though, that culture has always provided an outlet for the the creative and analytic drives of brains that were physically no different from ours or from the rich folks of their day - we may just not recognize that or have records of what was probably a largely oral and transitory culture.

Granted, being a poor farmer or a slave was perhaps not as much fun as being a modern keyboard jock or ancient lordling, but I think they had lives too, and filled them with joys and pursuits the way humans always have.
posted by freebird at 12:01 PM on June 20, 2006


wern't most of those powered by steam-based piston engines not turbines?

delmoi -no, at least not after WWI. Nuclear submarines use steam turbines.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:05 PM on June 20, 2006


I remember seeing a show on the history or discovery channel about him. According to that, all that stuff he did for the church was absolutely devoted to the bottom line (as the holy water dispenser indicates). The automatic doors and other such were designed to appear miraculous to increase donations. The more things change. . . .
posted by absalom at 12:33 PM on June 20, 2006


I've never heard of "The Hero Code."

Try looking for "The Of Alexander Code." "Of Alexander" would be Hero's last name if Dan Brown wrote it.
posted by Floydd at 1:34 PM on June 20, 2006


> the steam turbine was invented two millennia ago by Hero of Alexandria who developed
> the aeolipile as a toy.

It was still available not too long ago - as a toy. I built one from a kit. Fully credited to Hero, with a brief bio and a pen and ink portrait of some Alexandrine Greek dude with a beard, which I suppose may actually have been Hero-like.
posted by jfuller at 3:14 PM on June 20, 2006


"Of Alexander" would be Hero's last name if Dan Brown wrote it

But then he would have been accused of plagiarising The Handmaid's Tale
posted by Neiltupper at 4:12 PM on June 20, 2006


ancient inventions is a layman's guide to the origins of a wide range of inventions, many we typically think of as modern. i've read it cover to cover a couple of time, and i still like to pick up it now and again to read my favorite sections.
posted by lescour at 4:50 PM on June 20, 2006


Kitchen table thermodynamics: building simple steam engines at Science Toys.Com.

The first steam turbine naval vessel was Charles Algernon Parsons' 34 knot Turbinia^, which appeared in Bristol fashion at Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee Review^ on June 26, 1897:
To mark the 60th anniversary of the accession of Queen Victoria a grand Naval Review was held at Spithead. Where on June 26th 1897, was gathered the greatest armada the world had ever seen. No fewer than 165 ships flying the White Ensign were present. There were battleships of the Majestic and Royal Sovereign Class, the Cruisers Terrible and Powerful, Blake and Blenheim, the old Ironclads Devastation and Thunderer, many light cruisers, gunboats, 27 and 30 knot destroyers and at one end of the line 6 sailing brigs, the last remnants of the age of masts and yards. The entire fleet was manned by over 38,000 officers and men.

It was on this occasion that Turbinia after permission had been obtained, was to steam up and down the lines and astonish everyone by her performance. Along with the Queen was the Prince of Wales and Prince Henry of Prussia, the Kaiser's brother were also present. Charles Parsons had once written, "If you believe in a principle, never damage it with a poor impression. You must go all the way." Just as the review began, as Prince Edward appeared, and the bands struck up the national anthem, Turbinia dashed out from her position and into the passing review.

The sudden, dramatic, appearance and sped past the line of ships made spectators shouted aloud in amazement. The authorities became alarmed and sent out a picket boat to stop Turbinia but, as she was going so much faster, the wash she created nearly sank the pursuing navy vessel. Before any further disciplinary action could be taken, however, Prince Henry of Prussia sent Parsons his congratulations and asked for a return. Turbinia had triumphed!
Would have liked to have seen that: where is my time machine?
posted by cenoxo at 8:14 PM on June 20, 2006


so, he was the real priory of scion?

:-)
posted by jbelkin at 10:51 PM on June 20, 2006


Oh, sure, anyone's a big shot if they're named 'Hero' right from the start. Duh.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:16 AM on June 21, 2006


Lescour -- rereading Ancient Inventions was one of the inspirations for this post, I also recommend it.
posted by blahblahblah at 7:02 AM on June 21, 2006


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