Ancient automation that’s as good as new

Published on 8 November 2018

Model of the alarm clock of Plato, from around 4th-5th century B.C. (Photo: Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology)

Eleni Sardi

In an age of augmented reality, immersive experiences, and instant gratification at the swipe of one’s fingers, it might seem a bit twee to be impressed by the technological accomplishments of our ancient ancestors.

Yet as children, and adults too, we remain endlessly fascinated by musical boxes, elaborate cuckoo clocks, View-Masters and Rube Goldberg machines – analogue devices that operate on simple principles of technology, which continue to be at work in much of the world today.

So it figures why I, a millennial adult, and a Greek, was pleasantly surprised when I visited Science Centre Singapore’s latest exhibition, The Inventions of Ancient Greece: Origins of Our Modern Technology.

I had gone expecting to see an astrolabe, or some other astronomy instrument, or some ancient war technology which I learnt, way back when in school. Instead, I was greeted by water urns that work together as an alarm clock, a robot sommelier that pours wine when a cup is placed in its palm, and the very first example of a cinema.

The exhibition includes more than 40 artefacts, remodelled after ancient Greek inventions such as the portable calculator and an early gyroscope. Each object is accompanied by text explaining the technology behind it, and a short video showing how it works.

Model of the automatic servant of Philon, from the 3rd century B.C. (Photo: Eleni Sardi)

The artefacts belong to the Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology in Katakolo, Greece, which aims to show how the technology the ancient Greeks used is similar to contemporary technology. In doing so, the museum hopes to raise awareness of Greek contribution to technology, which is perhaps less well known than its contribution to the arts, politics and philosophy.

What I am struck by, aside from the sheer ingenuity of these devices, is how much folks who lived 2,000 years ago were just like us. They needed alarm clocks to wake them up in the morning and tools to tell the date and time, presumably to keep up with their busy social calendars. They tinkered with early robots to greet guests with a cup of – watered – wine, and built gates that opened automatically, to create the impression that it was an act of God.

They also came up with automatic vending machines to make the process of giving out holy water an efficient one, and they relied on an archaic version of our GPS to navigate their way at night. Through their technological inventions, they sought to make the world around them a little more manageable, a little more comforting.

Model of the hydraulic clock of Ktesibios from the 3rd century B.C. (Photo: Eleni Sardi)

Their devices, however, were not simply functional, they were also built to be aesthetically pleasing. There is an Eros-like statuette that holds on to the pointer telling time on a hydraulic clock, and the ostomachion, the predecessor of the puzzle, looks like it could be in Muji’s Christmas gifting catalogue.

Indeed, there is something humbling about looking back on the past and recognising the things that connect us as humans, not just through the centuries but also across cultures – the need to find ways to shape and tame the forces around us through inventions which make our lives better, and the desire to make them pretty at the same time.

 

Details on The Inventions of Ancient Greece: Origins of Our Modern Technology exhibition here.

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