8 Ancient Greek Inventions That Forever Changed the World

From plumbing to the world's first analog computer, the inventions of the ancient Greeks never fail to astound.
Marcia Wendorf
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The ancient Greeks are credited with creating the world's first great civilization, but in reality, they learned a lot from the past and from other cultures. Still, the number and quality of their inventions is astonishing.


1. Architecture

Take a stroll around Washington, D.C. and you'll see dozens of government buildings based on Greek architecture. These styles are recognized by the use of tall columns, symmetrical shapes, triangular pediments and domed roofs.

Lincoln Memorial
Lincoln Memorial Source: Martin Falbisoner/Wikimedia Commons

Architect Henry Bacon designed the Lincoln Memorial after the Acropolis in ancient Greece. Bacon wanted to use a building from the birthplace of democracy as a tribute to someone who defended democracy. The Lincoln Monument has thirty-six exterior columns that symbolize the number of "reunited" U.S. states at the time of Lincoln's assassination in 1865.

2. Olympic Games

The first Olympic Games were held in mid-July in 776 B.C.E. at the Greek city of Olympia, in honor of the Greek god Zeus. They were held every four years after that, with the last games occurring in 393 C.E., marking an incredible 293 Olympiads.

Representatives from the various Greek city-states competed in events such as a footrace of one circuit of the stadium, or about 192 meters. When the Greek city states were warring, there was a truce to allow both participants and spectators to travel safely to Olympia.

Over the years, the games got larger, going from one day to five days in 472 B.C. Longer footraces were added as were discus, javelin, boxing, pentathlon, wrestling and chariot racing. Winners received a crown of olive leaves.

The Olympic Games were revived in 1896, and are still going on today, but it will take another thousand years before they match the longevity of the ancient Greek version.

3. The Winch

In his Histories, ancient Greek historian Herodotus described the first winches. They were wooden and used to tighten cables that supported a pontoon bridge that crossed the Hellespont during the Persian Wars in 480 B.C.

By the 4th century B.C., Aristotle reported that winch and pulley hoists were common. He described compound pulley systems is in his work Mechanical Problems, written during the third century B.C. Cranes, hoists and pulleys were used by the ancient Greeks in their building methods.

4. Archimedes' Screw

This ingenious device is attributed to the famous Archimedes of Syracuse to lift solid or liquid substances from one elevation to another. It was used to transfer water into irrigation ditches.

Archimedes' Screw
Archimedes' Screw Source: Ianmacm/Wikimedia Commons

Still in use today, Archimedes' Screw is comprised of a screw – a helical surface surrounding a central cylindrical shaft inside of a hollow pipe. The screw is turned by manual labor, cattle, a windmill or a motor. As the shaft turns, a volume of water is scooped up, then pushed up the tube by the rotating helicoid.

The surface between the screw and pipe doesn't need to be perfectly watertight since any water leaking out of one section will be caught by the next lower section.

5. The Lighthouse

The first lighthouse was attributed to Themistocles during the 5th century B.C. It was located in the harbor at Piraeus, and was a column of stone with a fire at the top.

Later ancient Greek lighthouses included the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, which was constructed during the reign of Ptolemy II (280 - 247 B.C.). It has been estimated to have been over 10 meters (330 ft) in height, and was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Lighthouse of Alexandria
Lighthouse of Alexandria Source: Hermann Thiersch/Wikimedia Commons

The Lighthouse of Alexandria was severely damaged by three earthquakes that occurred between AD 956 and 1323, and it was eventually abandoned. By 1480, the last of the lighthouse's stones were used in other building projects.

In 1994, French archaeologists discovered remnants of the lighthouse beneath Alexandria's Eastern Harbor.

6. Plumbing and Showers

On ancient Crete, the Minoans were the first to use underground clay pipes for sanitation and water supply. Excavations at Olympus and Athens have revealed extensive plumbing systems for baths, fountains and personal use.

Ancient Greek shower
Ancient Greek shower Source: Wellcome Collection gallery/Wikimedia Commons

Showers were connected to their lead pipe plumbing system. A shower room for female athletes is shown on an ancient Athenian vase, and a complex of shower rooms was found in a 2nd-century B.C. gymnasium at Pergamum.

7. Astrolabe

The invention of the astrolabe is attributed to Appollonius of Perga. First used around 220 B.C., the astrolabe was used by astronomers and navigators to measure the altitude above the horizon of a celestial body, both during the day and night.

Astrolabe Source: Daderot/Wikimedia Commons

Besides being used to identify stars or planets, it was used to determine latitude if you knew the local time, and vice versa. Knowing the latitude was invaluable to ancient mariners.

8. First Analog Computer - The Antikythera Mechanism

In 1901, a crew of sponge divers was working off the coast of the Greek island Antikythera when they discovered an ancient shipwreck. In the wreck were bronze and marble statues, pottery, glassware, jewelry, coins, and a peculiar mechanism.

Antikythera Mechanism
Antikythera mechanism Source: Marsyas/Wikimedia Commons

All the items from the wreck were taken to the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens, where in 1902, archaeologist Valerios Stais found a gear wheel within the mechanism. That was where things remained until British science historian Derek de Solla Price got interested in the object in 1951.

Using X-rays and gamma-ray images, Price determined that the Antikythera mechanism had 82 separate fragments. In 2006, Mike Edmunds of Cardiff University used CT scans to reveal the mechanism's inner workings and hidden inscriptions.

Similar in size to a mantel clock, the mechanism was housed in a wooden case and had a large circular face with rotating hands. A knob on its side was used for winding the mechanism, and as the knob turned, interlocking gearwheels drove at least seven hands at various speeds.

The hands displayed celestial time: one hand for the Sun, one for the Moon, and one for each of the five planets visible to the naked eye — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

A rotating silver and black ball displayed the phase of the Moon, and inscriptions within the device explained which stars rose and set on any particular date.

Historian Cicero wrote of similar devices having being made by Archimedes in the third century B.C., or the device might have been made by Hipparchus, an astronomer living in Rhodes around that time who combined Babylonian astronomical predictions with those of the Greeks.

On the back of the mechanism's case were two dial systems with pins that followed a spiral groove, like a needle on a record player. One dial was a calendar, while the other showed the timing of lunar and solar eclipses.

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