Landels: Power and Energy Sources in the Ancient World

Jared Cochran

In this article, Landels goes into detail about the limited types of energy sources that the people of the ancient world used and had at their disposal. The first one that Landels goes into is the trivial one which is man power. However, as we know, there are only so many things that man can do just by himself. Landels addresses this and goes into detail about the different devices that man can use to get the most out of the work that is put in. Examples of these devices that Landels describes are the Capstan or Windlass and the Treadmill. The Capstan or Windlass is a device that is used to lift heavy objects off the ground by turning a cylinder that is connected to the object by a rope. There were two main ways of turning the cylinder and that was by crank, which was faster but had a smaller lift capacity, or by handspikes, which was slower but had a larger lift capacity. Eventually, a ratchet was implemented in with the crank so that the crank could be used more effectively. The crank eventually saw wide use in catapults. The Treadmill, on the other hand, was used to provide power. It was a very reliable and mobile power source where many of the other power sources at time were not. A very interesting fact that Landels brings up is that the Greeks and Romans exclusively used man power for propulsion of virtually all of their fighting ships.

The next source of power that Landels goes over is animal power. There were three main animals that ancient people used for power and those were oxen, donkeys/mules, and horses. Oxen were used for the harder, more labor intensive jobs such as farming, milling, etc. Oxen were cheap compared to the other animals and was relatively easy to feed in the Mediterranean climate while the others were not. Also, oxen could be eaten when they died while the other were not. This is why oxen were more widely used compared to the others. Horses on the other hand, were expensive to feed and could not handle the work that oxen could. This is why mainly wealthy people owned horses. So, because mainly wealthy people owned horses, they were used more for warfare, transportation, and leisure such as chariot racing. Donkeys/Mules were mainly used for transportation since they were faster than oxen and could handle more workload then horses.

Landels next went over water power. Use of water power could only be consistent if there was a substantial water supply that was steady year-round. Because of this, water mills were not widespread. The first water mill is thought to have been built in the first century BC in the kingdom of Mithridates, at Kebeira in the Pontus (near modern Niksar, North Central Turkey). Water mills have been used for two main reasons and those are for water raising and for milling. Two examples of milling sites that used water power are Agora at Athens (mid or late fifth century AD) and Barbegal, near Arles in Southern France (late third or early fourth century AD).

There were three main types of water wheels that ancient people used. The earliest water wheel was the vertical-shaft type. No remains of this type have been found since they were made mainly from wood. This type of water wheel was drove by falling water so this type of wheel was difficult to set up. An improvement from the vertical-shaft type was the undershot (Vitruvian) wheel. This wheel was drove by the current of the body of water it was in. The most efficient type of water wheel was the overshot. The overshot water wheel is the water wheel that is still seen today at different sites. The overshot was quite difficult and expensive to set up since it requires the water to flow over the wheel while the undershot can be placed in the body of water so the undershot would be used unless the higher efficiency is needed.
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The last two power sources that Landels discusses are wind and steam power. These are grouped together because neither of them were used as power sources until much later. Ideas of using wind and steam for power were referenced in Pneumatica of Her of Alexandria but the ideas were more of toys instead of viable sources of power. However, wind was used for transportation on ships.

There were many different power sources that ancient people had at their disposal. The ideas and uses behind these power sources really highlight the discussion from class that technology comes before science. The science behind many of these sources of power would not be researched until much later but the technology behind them have been around for centuries.

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