Gadgets and Scientific Instruments

Örjan Wikander

in The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World

Published in print December 2009 | ISBN: 9780199734856
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks

 Gadgets and Scientific Instruments

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  • Classical Studies
  • Greek and Roman Archaeology
  • Historical Archaeology


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This article treats some practical applications of the physical principles, for example water clocks, astronomical instruments, and hodometers. The so-called five simple machines were known and discussed by Greek engineers and scientists from at least the late third century bc onward, perhaps beginning with Philo of Byzantium. Many automata were certainly intended to cause astonishment, but the ultimate intent of these miracles was doubtless to illustrate physical and mechanical principles. The article discusses the land hodometer of Vitruvius. The technology of the Roman Empire is mainly associated with large, low-technology machines based on Hellenistic inventions. But various types of evidence prove that the knowledge of automata and other gadgets was passed on. The direct technology transfer that took place from the Roman Empire to medieval Western Europe as far as water-mills and similar machines are concerned, had apparently no counterparts in high technology.

Keywords: water clocks; astronomical instruments; land hodometer; Vitruvius; automata; Roman Empire; Western Europe

Article.  6170 words. 

Subjects: Classical Studies ; Greek and Roman Archaeology ; Historical Archaeology

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