With the advent of the first steam engine in the early 1800s, followed by the harnessing of electric power a few decades shy of the 20th century, modern man began to rely heavily on machines as a source of power. Run by steam, electricity, or combustion, one modern machine can do the job of many men and animals at a faster pace. Before the 19th and 20th century, however, the power and energy sources available to humans were limited. As Landels summarizes in a section of his book “Engineering in the Ancient World”, a section of which this blog is based on, “virtually all work was done by man-power or animal power”.
Landels’ main argument in the section of his book titled “Power and Energy Sources” is that the Greeks and Romans of the classical period did not use vast numbers of slaves or workers like the Egyptians, but instead resorted to machines of their own. Particularly, Landels discusses the use of the windlass, which was a network of pulleys used to transfer energy, the treadmill, the water wheel, and a theoretical steam engine by the ancient Greeks. Landels’ main source of knowledge on the use of these simple machines is the writings of the “Hero of Alexandria”, also known as Heron of Alexandria, who was a Greek mathematician and inventor. Among Heron’s inventions was a small-scale type of steam engine. Landels concludes that it was highly unlikely that this steam engine was ever put to any real use due to the kind of fuel that was available at the time. Coal made the steam engine possible in the 19th century, due to the high temperature at which it burns. Coal was a substance that was largely unavailable to the ancient Greeks, who relied mainly on charcoal and wood for heat.
Overall, power and energy sources have changed significantly over the past 200 years alone. The ancient Greeks, however, were able to construct great temples and architectural masterpieces with the use of merely simple machines, man-power, and animal power. While Heron the Hero of Alexandria came close to inventing a practical steam engine, in the end the lack of proper fuel stopped him short.
Written by: Aaron George. Word count 369 not including the heading and title.
The above link provides an in-depth description about what we know of the Hero of Alexandria and his inventions. The article is a well-written source of information and it provides some images and videos depicting Heron’s works.