Ancient Greek Technology: Seven Surprising Ancient Inventions

Most people know that the Ancient Greeks invented democracy, and the Olympic Games. Ancient Greek philosophers and Greek tragedies are famous all over the world, and mythological stories from Ancient Greece still fascinate and inspire us today. But you may not know how much of the technology we rely on today is thanks to the inventions of Ancient Greece. In this post, we delve into the world of Ancient Greek technology, to learn about some ancient inventions that we still use in our daily lives.

1. Ancient Greek Technology to Measure Distances

Have you ever watched the milometer ticking steadily upwards in your car, and wondered about the origins of that technology? Probably not. Well, the Greeks invented it and called it odometer (which literally means ‘path measure’). Of course, odometers are digital today, but not so long ago they were mechanical. This might not sound like a very important invention. But by precisely measuring distances, the odometer helped the Greeks and the Romans to revolutionise the building of roads.

An Odometer in ancient Greek technology
Reconstruction of an ancient Greek odometer, Thessaloniki Science Center and Technology Museum

2. Exploiting the Power of Water

The modern watermill takes its origins from the 3rd century BC Greek Perachora Wheel. The watermill, which uses the power of running water, was a revolutionary invention which the Greeks used, most importantly, to grind grain. After the invention of the watermill, people from all over the world took inspiration from this Ancient Greek technology to transform simple grains, like rice, into edible food staples.

A watermill from Braine-le-Château, 12th century, based on Ancient Greek technology
Watermill in Braine-le-Château, Belgium, 12th century

3. Let’s Look at the Stars!

The Ancient Greeks were very interested in astronomy. Between the 3rd and the 2nd centuries BC, they invented the astrolabe, an instrument that could measure the altitudes of celestial bodies. this ancient invention also helped the Greeks figure out the location of the sun, planets and other stars. Clever stuff!

Iranian Astrolabe, 2013
Modern society learning from ancient Greek technology: Iranian Astrolabe, 2013
An early 19th century illustration of the Greek Clepsydra
An early 19th century illustration of the Greek Clepsydra

4. What Time Is It?

Although the earliest form of water clock appeared in the 16th century BC, the Ancient Greeks improved on the design with some outstanding technological advancements. People already used Sundials to check the time. But sundials only functioned when the sun was out. The Water clock helped people to measure the passing of time in a more precise way. The Greeks used the Clepsydra in courtrooms, to indicate when the speakers had run out of time. And, more juicily, some scholars say that they might have been used as “stopwatches” to impose time limits on customers at Athenian brothels!

5. Rudely Awoken on a Monday Morning? Blame the Ancient Greeks!

We all have alarm clocks. Either to wake up in the morning or to remind us to take a cake out of the oven. Well, once more, this useful device is based (sort of) on Ancient Greek technology! Ctesibius, a Hellenistic engineer, added an alarm system to his clepsydra (Water Clock). At a pre-set times, water would drop through a number of clay vessels which caused air pressure to sound off a whistle-hole!

Modern Alarm clock
Modern Alarm clock, deriving from ancient Greek technology

6. Showers: an Ancient Greek Invention?

Have you ever thought about who invented the shower? Well, it was probably the Ancient Greeks. Sophisticated plumbing systems, made of lead pipes, meant that the Ancient Greeks were able to pump water in and out of their communal shower rooms. Wealthy citizens and common people alike used showers.

Plumbing system in ancient Greek technology
Plumbing system in ancient Greek technology

7. How to Build Temples?

Just try to think about how many temples the Greeks built… they basically lifted and transported heavy materials all the time! It should come as no surprise, then, that the crane was an essential piece of technology in Ancient Greece. Archaeologists have found several holes on the blocks of Greek temples pointing to the existence of cranes from 515 BC!

Greco-Roman Crane
Greco-Roman Crane

8. Beyond Ancient Greek Technology

Apart from inventing useful machines, the Greeks also loved geometry and mathematics (I’m sure the name “Pythagoras” will bring back unpleasant memories of your school days). They also took medicine very seriously: in ancient times, everyone thought that illnesses, like the Plague of Athens, were punishments from the gods. This all changed with Hippocrates, who started to collect data and showed that symptoms were nothing more than the natural reactions of the body to a disease. And theatre, in the modern sense (involving the performance of a pre-written play for an audience), is an Ancient Greek invention too!

The Pythagorean Theorem
The Pythagorean Theorem… do you feel like a teenager again?

It’s clear that the Greeks were a daring and inspiring civilization. Of course, a single list cannot do justice to the many inventions and ideas that have had their effect on modern life. But it does give us an idea of how much Ancient Greek technology helped to shape our modern society.

If you’d like to know more about the Ancient Greeks, check out our blog posts on the Parthenon, Greek athletes, and Greek drinking vases. And to get the latest blog posts from THATMuse straight to your inbox, sign up to our mailing list!

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