Heron of Alexandria, also called Hero (flourished c. ad 62, Alexandria, Egypt), Greek geometer and inventor whose writings preserved for posterity a knowledge of the mathematics and engineering of Babylonia, ancient Egypt, and the Greco-Roman world.
It is almost certain that Hero taught at the Museum which included the famous Library of Alexandria, because most of his writings appear as lecture notes for courses in mathematics, mechanics, physics, and pneumatics. Although the field was not formalized until the twentieth century, it is thought that the work of Hero, his automated devices in particular, represents some of the first formal research into cybernetics.
Heron was a brilliant man, well ahead of his time. He was Da Vinci, way before Leonardo Da Vinci. He’s a bit of a mystery, in the way of Nikola Tesla, but not due to his being an introvert, but because he lived so long ago that many of his inventions were lost to time, war, fire and other disasters which destroy great creations.
While he first was a brilliant mathematician, many of his inventions must have seemed like magic, to the commoners of the time. He worked primarily with air, steam, water pressure, ropes, levers and pulleys, but the magic he created was absolute genius. It wasn’t long before two groups came calling for Heron’s work. One was the Roman military, and the other, the Greek church.
For the military, he created war machines, like the early form of the modern Gatling gun, which gave the Romans a huge military advantage. However, for the flailing Greek church, he created magic.
Many Greeks have turned away from the notion of gods, and membership size had dwindled through out the Greek states. But once Heron got to working his “magic”, the people turned back in droves. Some of his magic creations were the weeping statue, the large floating statue of Helios and the automatic doors to Athena’s temple. But, there were many more.
A wind-wheel operating a pipe organ—the first instance of wind powering a machine.
The first automatic vending machine. When a coin was introduced through a slot on the top of the machine, a set amount of holy water was dispensed. When the coin was deposited, it fell upon a pan attached to a lever. The lever opened up a valve which let some water flow out. The pan continued to tilt with the weight of the coin until the coin fell off, at which point a counter-weight would snap the lever back up and turn off the valve.
Mechanisms for the Greek theater, including an entirely mechanical puppet play almost ten minutes in length, powered by a binary-like system of ropes, knots, and simple machines operated by a rotating cylindrical cogwheel. The sound of thunder was produced by the mechanically-timed dropping of metal balls onto a hidden drum.
What very few people know, thanks to the omission of important facts from our history books, is that Heron was the first inventor of the steam engine, a steam powered device that was called aeolipile or the ‘Heron engine’. The name comes from the Greek word ‘Aiolos’ who was the Greek God of the winds.
Although a few others have talked about devices similar to aeolipiles before Heron, Heron was the first one to describe them in detail and give instructions for manufacturing them in his book Pneumatica, where more than 78 devices are described. Many of Heron’s ideas were extensions and improvements of another Greek inventor who lived in Alexandria 300 years before him, known as Ktesibios, the first to write about the science of compressed air.
Hero’s works include descriptions of machines working on air, steam or water pressure, architectural devices for lifting heavy objects, methods of calculating surfaces and volumes – including a method of calculating the square root, war machines, and manipulation of light using reflection and mirrors.
Unfortunately man-kind wasn’t ready for some of his creations, and they were reinvented a thousand or more years later. Imagine for a moment, if the “Heron Engine” would have been taken seriously? Picture a world where the Roman war machine could have crossed the Oceans thanks to their steam powered ships, or moved their troops from place to place much faster, using a train? Like with all inventions, no matter how great the idea and creation, it will only be used in the practical world when financial visionaries come along and want to change the world… for better or worse.
By: Attila Domos