Heron of Alexandria


Mathematician, Physicist, Engineer, Inventor, Writer (c. 10 – c. 70)

Heron of Alexandria was an innovative engineer and a brilliant mathematician and physicist. Along with Apollonius of Perga, Aristarchus, Conon, Hipparchus, Ctesebius, Philon of Byzantium and many others, he was part of a group of prominent scientists who worked and flourished in the Museum in the Library of Alexandria, the most illustrious center of arts and sciences at its time. Together with the two latter, Heron’s inventions on automatons paved the way to the development of today’s automatic machines.

Among Heron’s greatest inventions recorded by history are the following:

  • The dioptra were instruments built for the precise measurement of distances between two celestial or terrestrial bodies. According to Heron himself, it was possible using these instruments to chart islands and seas, in astronomy to calculate the distances between stars and predict eclipses.
  • The nautical hodometre was an intricate device made of cogs and gears that could measure sea distances.
  • The pantograph, an instrument designed for copying drawings and figures. The machine included a mechanism by which the operator could enlarge or reduce the size of the copy.
  • The windpowered hydraulis demonstrated the world’s very first substantial use of wind powering a machine. It was a musical instrument that utilized air to function.
  • The automatic servant was a humanoid robot which held a jug of wine in her right hand. When a visitor placed a cup on her left palm, she automatically poured wine. Afterwards, she poured water into the cup mixing it when desired.
  • A device which permitted the automatic opening of the temple gates after sacrifice on its altar.
  • A hydraulic automaton depicting Hercules launching an arrow against a dragon. When the viewer lifted the apple in the middle of the platform, Hercules’ hand was released and the arrow was launched at the dragon, which made it hiss giving a sense of death. It functioned by utilizing air and pressure.
  • Heron’s “Philosopher stone” was an invention that could “change” one liquid, for example water, to another, such as wine. It consisted of two vessels which were connected by a small tube at the bottom and reached at their top. When water was poured in the first one, it caused the air to move to the second vessel and push out an equal amount of wine from the second one.
  • Heron’s aeolosphere was the precursor of the steam engine. It consisted of a sphere with two curved nozzles, resting on a boiler. When water was boiled, the heat that was produced entered the sphere, then came out of the nozzles and forced te sphere into rotation. The aeolosphere is considered Heron’s most well-known invention.
  • Numerous other inventions such as the sound alarm, a sound device that was activated by the opening of a door which it protected, the hovering sphere, the automatic cup with the counterweight, the magic fountain, which recycled water and ostensibly defied the hydrostatic principles, the magic horse of Heron, the self-controlled water boiler, the magic dance, the automatic tripods of Hephaestus. Heron’s static automatic theater was the “cinema” of the Ancient Greeks. Other inventions include elevating machines of remarkable technology, most notably the cranes for large load, the one-mast crane, the winches etc.

Heron was the DaVinci of antiquity, the Copperfield of machines. His works were reproduced by countless engineers and inventors throughout the ages, leading to today’s technological era. His work was admired so much by the Romans and the Arabs that nearly his entire work as been saved and translated. History has justly placed Heron of Alexandria among the world’s greatest, most cutting-edge engineers that walked this Earth.


  1. Ayfantis, Georgios. Anthropos & Epistimi – Enimerosis: Prehistory and History of Man, Science & Civilization. Athens: Hellinikon Selas, 2009. Print.
  2. “Heron Alexandreus”. Helios New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. Passas, I. Athens, 1946. Print.
  3. Kotsanas, Kostas. Ancient Greek Technology: The Inventions of the Ancient Greeks.  Pyrgos: Kostas Kotsanas, 2013. Print.
Heron of Alexandria

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