13 Engineers From Antiquity And Their Marvels

These are some of the great engineers from antiquity whose names have, thankfully, survived the ravages of time.
Christopher McFadden
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The ancient world is full of amazing feats of engineering from the Great Pyramid of Giza to the impressive aqueducts of Rome. Whilst many of the names of these engineers from antiquity have been lost to history some did survive to the modern day.

The following 13, unlucky for some, are just a few of the great engineers of times long gone by. This list is in no particular order (though Archimedes had to come first) and is far from exhaustive.

1. Archimedes was a legend

engineers from antiquity archimedes
Source: Thomas Degeorge/Wikimedia Commons

Archimedes is one of the most important thinkers of all time. He is renowned for his work as a mathematician and philosopher who wrote important works in geometry, arithmetic, and mechanics.

With regard to his work on engineering, he defined the principle of the lever and is also widely credited with the invention of the pulley, hydraulic screw and his work on the law of hydrostatics (aka the Archimedes Principle).

Legend also attests to his defensive marvels in Syracuse employed against a Roman siege in 214 BC. These included catapults and his "death ray" mirror system as well as his "Archimedes Claw" for capsizing ships, all attached to the city's walls.

These accounts also detail how he was killed by Roman soldier once the city's defenses were finally defeated. It is said that he was still absorbed in his calculations at the time of his death.

2. Sostratus of Cnidus built the Great Lighthouse at Alexandria

engineers from antiquity sostradus
Source: Emad Victor SHENOUDA /Wikimedia Commons

Sostradus was a native of Cnidus, hence the name, which was located in Caria in Asia Minor (Modern Day Anatolia, Turkey). He was the son of the Dexiphanes the architect of the Tetra Stadium in Alexandria.

Sostradus was responsible for some very interesting an impressive ancient engineering projects. These included the Pharos of Alexandria (The Great Lighthouse) that was built in around 280 BC and was one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.

He also built the Suspended Pleasure Gardens in Cnidus that were ostensibly similar to another wonder of the ancient world The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Sostratus also built the ClubHouse of the Cnidians in Delphi and diversionary canals on the Nile at Memphis.

3. Polyidus of Thessaly worked for Alexander the Great's dad

engineers from antiquity Polyidus
Source: Gts-tg/Wikimedia Commons

Polyidus was a greek military engineer from antiquity who served under the Macedonian king and father of Alexander the Great, Philip II. He is best known for his improvements on covered battering ram siege engines during Philip's siege of Byzantium in 340 BC.

His students included Diades of Pella and Charias who would go on to serve under Alexander the Great's many campaigns.

Polyidus is also credited as the inventor of the Helepolis (a very large siege tower called the "Taker of Cities"). For anyone who hasn't played any Total War games, siege towers are large tapered towers that were pushed into battle to scale enemy battlements.

Being made of wood they were very susceptible to fire and so were often clad in fire-resistant materials like iron plates. They must have been a fearsome sight during any siege.

4. Hero of Alexandria devised the first steam engine

engineers from antiquity Hero
Source: Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary/Wikimedia Commons

Hero of Alexandria is one of the most famous engineers from antiquity. He was famous during his time and is still renowned to this day.

Hero made significant developments in mathematics, physics, and engineering and lived sometime in the 1st Century BC. He set up the Higher Technical School of Alexandria and he wrote extensively on many subjects including geometry, surveying, mechanics, and optics.

Amongst his many technical achievements he devised the first steam engine, called the Aeolipile, the world's first recorded odometer and naval log and famed mechanical "Fountain".

He also developed the world's first robotic automaton and vending machine (yes you read that right).

5. Philo of Byzantium might have been the first to invent the water mill

Philo of Byzantium, also known as Phile Mechanicus, is a famous Greek engineer from antiquity. He was also a prolific physicist and wrote extensively on mechanical principles.

He lived in the second half of the 3rd Century BC, was born in Byzantium but spent most of his life in Alexandria in Egypt. His writings focus on various topics from mathematics, artillery, mechanical toys and diversions, and harbor building.

Recent studies have also uncovered detailed descriptions of water mills, repeating crossbows and the first description of a gimbal known.

6. Vitruvius would inspire Leonardo da Vinci

engineers from antiquity vitruvius
Source: Sebastian Le Clerc/Wikimedia Commons

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, known as Vitruvius for short, was a famed Roman architect and engineer. He is generally celebrated as the author of his Roman architect's handbook "De Architectura" (on architecture).

Much of the information on this man's life has been lost to history apart from his surviving written works. From what can be gathered most of his work seems to be dedicated to Augustus Caesar but he may have also worked with Julius Caesar.

His "De Architectura" was based on his own professional experiences in the field but also included theoretical works by famous Greek architects like Hermogenes. It covers many aspects of the discipline over 10 books dealing with aspects of city planning, temple design and construction, public buildings and military engines.

Several books of the series are dedicated to Roman technology of the time including water mills, siege engines, aqueducts, surveying instruments and even central heating (hypocausts).

His works on perfect proportion are thought to have inspired Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, hence the name.

7. Meton of Athens made important contributions to astronomy

engineers from antiquity Meton
Source: Marsyas/Wikimedia Commons

Meton of Athens was a native of Athens and son of Pausanias. He studied engineering and geometry and would be later cited by other great engineers like Vitruvius.

He is best known for his 19-year "Metonic Cycle" that became central to ancient Athenian lunisolar calendars.

From his work in astronomy, he would later construct a solar clock in around 433 BC. He also designed and built a number of waterworks including the Colonos aqueduct.

The world's oldest known astronomical calculator, the Antikythera Mechanism, performs calculations based on Meton's cycle.

8. Imhotep isn’t just a bloodthirsty mummy but was also a great engineer

Imhotep (yes of "The Mummy" fame) was actually a very important ancient Egyptian engineer. He was one of the chief officials of the Pharaoh Djoser and an important polymath, judge, engineer, astronomer, and physician.

Egyptologists believe he was the man responsible for the design of the Pyramid of Djoser which is an early stepped pyramid in Saqqara built around 1630-2611 BC.

He is also thought to be one of the first engineers to introduce stone columns for building structural support.

After his death, Imhotep was risen to the status of a good of medicine and healing and also equated with Thoth (a god of architecture, mathematics, and medicine).

9. Dinocrates built Alexandria

engineers from antiquity Dinocrates
Source: Faigl.ladislav/Wikimedia Commons

Dinocrates of Rhodes was a Greek architect and engineer. He accompanied Alexander the great on his campaign across the known world.

Dinocrates is best known for his plan of the great city of Alexandria, the monumental funeral pyre of Hephaestion and the reconstruction of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in modern day Turkey.

Other works include several city plans and temples in Delphi, Delos, and other Greek cities. According to preliminary findings by archaeologists, he may have been the architect of a vast Hellenistic tomb found at Amphipolis in 2012.

10. Eupalinos built the longest tunnel of his age

engineers from antiquity Eupalinos
Source: Zach Marshall/Wikimedia Commons

Eupalinos of Megara was an ancient Greek engineer credited with building the impressive Tunnel of Eupalinos on the island of Samos in around the 6th Century BC.

This tunnel is one of only two such tunnel complexes that were excavated from both ends in a systematic way in ancient history. Its length would make it, as far as we know, the longest one of its time.

The tunnel was commissioned by Polycrates of Samos and is over a kilometer in length. Given the crude tools compared to today, it is an impressive feat of engineering.

He is also the first hydraulic engineer to ever be mentioned in history but any other information on the man has been lost to history.

11. Harpalus built the first bridge across the Bosphorus

engineers from antiquity harpalus
Modern-day Bosphorus. Source: Nikos Roussos/Flickr

Harpalus is known in ancient history as the man who built the famous pontoon bridge used by Xerxes to cross the Hellespont in 480 BC. This information comes, primarily, from the ancient historian Herodotus.

There are other supporting sources in history namely a 1 to 2nd Century papyrus that lists artists and scientists by their historical achievements. It provides a glowing report of his work.

"One of Mandrocles' successors, not named by Herodotus, was Harpalos of Tenedos who, succeeding where Egyptian and Phoenician engineers had failed, built the bridge over the Hellespont."

12. Sextus Julius Frontinus

engineers from antiquity Sextus
Source: MM/Wikimedia Commons

Sextus was a very important Roman civil engineer, author and Roman statesman during the 1st Century AD. He was also a very successful general under Domitian and even commanded forces in Roman Britain, the Rhine and Danube.

Sextus, however, is best known for his technical writings, primarily De Aqueductu that dealt with the workings of aqueducts. This followed his appointment as the curator aquarum or supervisor of aqueducts by Emperor Nerva.

This office required someone of very high standing and competence.

This position was previously held by Agrippa who helped organize a campaign of public repairs and improvements under Augustus including the aqueduct Aqua Marcia in Rome.

13. Hemiunu built The Great Pyramid

engineers from antiquity Hermiunu
Source: Sean Ellis/Flickr

Hermiunu was an ancient Egyptian engineer born into the royal family in around 2570 BC. He is one one of a handful of named engineers and mathematicians of the period who designed an oversaw the construction of The Great Pyramid at Giza.

The pyramid was designed as a massive tomb for Pharaoh Khufu and it remains one of the most impressive feats of engineering in the ancient world.

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