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Hero of the Industrial Revolution

by Michael Flora


80 B.C.: it was a dark and stormy night. The lookout, lashed to the mast, strained to see through the sheets of rain. A sudden flash of lightning revealed the tooth-like shapes of rocks, dead ahead! The lookout screamed a warning, and the helmsman, in near-panic, swung the ship hard a-port. With a sigh of relief, the lookout watched the coast of the island of Antikythera slide by to starboard...

So the Antikythera mechanism, the most complex mechanical device known from the ancient world and the first known example of differential gearing before the 16th century A.D., is saved from nearly 2000 years of watery obscurity.

C. Rotundus Maximus, the wealthy Roman merchant whose hobby is astronomy, gets his toy solar system. His numerous houseguests are fascinated by it, and often ask to turn the handle to see the phases of the moon. Maximus knows a good thing when he sees it, and orders several copies of the machine from the now-unknown Ionian mechanical genius from whom he commissioned the original.

By 70 B.C. the device is present in many of the great Roman villas. Some enterprising Italian craftsmen begin making cheap copies of it, and these make their way to many middle-class homes. In 55 B.C. one of these entrepreneurs has an idea: for a client, he drives the mechanism via a paddle-wheel turned by a water fountain, thus eliminating the need to manually turn the handle. It also dawns on him that he can represent the hours of the day by using a special dial, and so the first mechanical clock is created.

A.D. 45: it is a beautiful evening in Alexandria, but our Hero is not watching the sunset. He is in his workshop, in the throes of inspiration. He is gazing at two pieces of machinery: one is a clock, and the other is his aeolipile. The clock is a humongous grandfather type - with a pendulum! One of those Italian artisans invented the pendulum and escapement some thirty years ago, and it has now spread around the Empire. The aeolipile is a reaction steam turbine, consisting of a boiler heated by burning wood from which rise two tubes that act as structural supports as well as steam tubes, feeding steam to a freewheeling drum. The drum sprouts two tubes from its edge that curl in opposite directions around the circumference. Steam jets from the open ends of the tubes, causing the drum to spin furiously if impotently. Hero had added another improvement just a month ago. While watching some children make reed flutes, he had noted that air blown through a reed gains considerable speed if the end of the reed is crimped to narrow its cross-section. By crimping the ends of the aeolipile's steam tubes, Hero greatly improved the efficiency of the aeolipile and incidentally invented a crude version of the de Laval converging-diverging nozzle, 1850 years early.

Hero watches the slowly revolving gears, then the whirling drum, then visualizes a small-diameter gear to replace the clock pendulum/escapement... slow down the drum's motion but increase its...twisting power (torque is known practically but has not been mathematically formalized)... he remembers water clocks with their paddle wheels, then sees the link... aeolipile, gear train, paddle wheel...

A.D. 46: Hero demonstrates a paddlewheel steamboat on the Nile. It attracts the attention of the Roman consul in Egypt...

A.D. 100: Steamboats are fairly common throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and on the Nile and other major rivers. The Emperor sails his steam yacht to Capri. The grain trade is greatly facilitated by the speed and relative reliability of steam. The Roman navy has finally adopted steam for some of its warships. Moreover, some innovative Roman civil engineers have seen the possibility of applying steam to land transportation. The Romans already are skilled at road, bridge, and viaduct construction. The first railways feature stone beds with a pair of grooves for wheels to fit in. Later, the grooves are lined with iron to prevent wear. By A.D. 125 railways connect Rome with major Italian cities, and the first Egyptian railway (from Alexandria to points south) has been completed.

All this is being accomplished without the benefit of Newtonian mechanics, without coal, without electricity, in a world which still believes in Ptolemy's astronomy. Boilers and other machinery are built mostly by rules of thumb; math is limited to geometry, since algebra lies in the future. The spread of machinery has sparked a lot of ideas in bright minds, however.

Wood is the source of energy for the economy, and it is a problem. As the Mediterranean population expands. forests are cut down and the land is denuded. An obvious source of wood is the dense central European forest, still controlled by the fierce Germanic tribes. Rome gets serious about conquering Germany, spending a lot of money to build roads, railways, cities and forts in this area. Also, tree plantations become common on the Italian peninsula.

In A.D. 130, a researcher at the Imperial Institute of Technology in Rome finds that when wood chips are heated under the right conditions they emit a gas that burns. Wood gas is discovered! It is a fuel that can be piped to where it is needed, for heat and light. Also, it is found that components of this gas are buoyant. By A.D. 150 the first balloon flight by humans has been made.

Slavery continues throughout the Roman Empire during the whole of this period, although as machinery spreads the roles of slaves begin to change and their numbers begin to decrease. Manual labor and field work still consume the efforts of millions, but clever individuals are already experimenting with mechanical threshers and combines. Steam cranes and pumps are becoming widespread by the middle of the second century. Literacy is on the rise due to the invention of the rotary printing press, although the carved wooden type is not durable. A new form of imaginative literature, of a kind similar to the stories of Lucian of Samosata, comes into vogue. It features plots driven by expanding knowledge and changing technology, and features flights to the moon, although its vision is hampered by lack of telescopes.

The Roman economic system also undergoes changes. The rudimentary stock market that existed under the Republic balloons in size in order to soak up the money being generated by the machine economy, and to provide capital for new factories and other enterprises. People are more mobile and move from province to province to find jobs. The Empire suffers roaring bouts of inflation, and depressions occur as well. Money itself is a problem - there isn't enough of it since the currency is precious-metal-based. Debasing helps, but the lack of paper currency and of a real banking system inhibits economic growth.

The Empire inexorably presses eastward, both from its new colonies in Germania and from its Middle Eastern holdings. Besides steamships and railways, the Romans benefit from the automatic arrow-firing guns invented by Hero. Gunpowder has not been invented, so the individual soldier must still depend on sword and spear. The Parthians are finally overcome about A.D. 200, and Imperial armies find themselves on the Indian border. The Indian rulers are worried, and the shock waves from the Roman advance have reached Cathay. Trade between the Chinese and Rome is difficult but has expanded since the advent of steam. Semi-regular voyages are made around the land mass of Asia, and some clocks and other contrivances have been traded by the Romans to the Chinese. The Chinese are somewhat concerned about this distant power, but are engaged in a civil war and cannot respond effectively. Within India, however, the ascendant Kushan empire takes action.

A.D. 215: An observer in a Roman balloon gazes eastward across the Hydaspes River. He sees an enormous host of Kushani troops with elephants and horse, and estimates their number at 500,000. A pontoon bridge, protected by fireships north and south and by barges of archers firing flaming arrows, is almost ready for use. Glancing down at the 200,000-strong Roman army, he sees the artillery batteries being deployed, the bolt-launchers and the new gas-guns. Smoke rises from the shallow-draft Roman steamers on the river.

Movement attracts his eye. Kushani elephants are on the pontoon bridge, followed by a mass of infantry, moving as fast as they can. Vast numbers of missiles are flung from catapults on the eastern bank. Roman artillery replies, arrows and bolts falling into the river and into the crowded troops. Now the first elephants have reached the west bank. The infantry run toward the Roman lines...

To be continued.


Notes and references:

1) The Antikythera mechanism was discovered in 1901. Its builder and its ultimate destination are a mystery. See:


2) In real life Hero was something of an early Thomas Edison (see Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero_of_Alexandria).


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