The Greek Engineer

May 14, 2018

Golden Papers

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The Greek engineer who invented the steam engine 2,000 years ago Almost two millennia before the rest of humanity entered the industrial age, the Greek inventor Hero invented the steam engine, wind-powered machinery, and theories of light that couldn’t be improved for centuries. And then he invented some really crazy stuff. Scientific geniuses have to pull off a tricky balancing act before they’re even born.

Great minds like Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton were born at precisely the right time for their ideas to be really revolutionary – just far enough ahead of their time to be trailblazers, but not so far ahead that people had no idea what they were talking about. Hero of Alexandria Hero, or Heron, of Alexandria, on the other hand, had the astonishing bad taste to be born around 10 CE, which made his inventions so far ahead of their time that they could be of little practical use and, in time, were forgotten.

If he had been born in, say, 1710, his engineering prowess and incredible creativity might have made him the richest person in the world. As it is, he’ll just have to settle for the posthumous reputation of being the greatest inventor in human history. Seriously, unless you invent a warp drive tomorrow, there’s no way you’re catching up to Hero. We know precious little about where Hero came from, and it’s only in the last century that we actually became certain which century he lived in.

The best guess is that he was an ethnic Greek born in Egypt in the early decades of the first century CE, one of the many people whose ancestors had emigrated from Greece after the conquests of Alexander the Great. Hero probably taught at the Musaeum at Alexandria, an institution founded by the Greek rulers of Egypt – you can see an artist’s conception of it above. The Musaeum was unlike anywhere else in the ancient Mediterranean, a gathering place for scholars and the sciences that would remain unique until the rise of universities centuries later.