Heron: The Industrial Engineer Long Before the Industrial Age

Science is full of unsung heroes. Heron of Alexandria made the first vending machine and a steam-powered engine 2,000 years before its time.
Interesting Engineering

Science is full of unsung heroes, but rarely do we focus on the very ancient scholars.

Heron of Alexandria, the Great-Great Grandfather of Engineering, is one of the most intelligent innovators ever. He designed the first vending machine, steam-powered engine, and a wind-powered machine.

Heron lived between 10 CE and 70 CE in Alexandria, Egypt, a city that served as an epicenter for science, engineering and philosophy. As a mathematician, Heron also developed many mechanical designs and machines millennia ahead of the earliest scholars.

Heron's Automaton - The First Robot

Sources suggest Heron invented the first programmable robot as a tool to entertain audiences at the amphitheater in 60 CE. He constructed a cart with rope wrapped around two axles with a falling weight to produce power. This allowed the robot to change direction and move along a pre-programmed course. This primitive mechanism is very similar to a modern binary computer language; old-fashioned punch cards operated on exactly the same principle.

Heron's Vending Machine

Heron also invented the first vending machine. The device supplied holy water after inserting a coin through a slot. The coin fell into a tray connected to a crank and opened a valve that let water flow out. Eventually, the coin slid off the tray, by a counterweight, the lever snapped back into place and got ready for the next worshipper.

Heron also invented many other devices like a syringe that was much larger than modern types. He made a fountain that powers itself based on sophisticated hydraulic pneumatic principles. The fountain contained two reservoirs. One was filled with water that poured into the upper tray. It flowed down to the first reservoir, where it compressed the air into the second reservoir that forced water out and created a strong jet.

Heron garnered most notoriety for his steam engine called the aeolipile.

Source: Wikipedia

The aeolipile showed how to unlock the power of steam. The bladeless radial turbine spun when the central water was heated. It was composed of a cupric stand on a boiler, by two pipes upwards vertically from the surface.


Heron invented an automatic temple door opener that used heat and pneumatics to open a set of temple doors, which was seemed magical in that period. He also used one of the simplest sources of free energy, the wind, to create a wind-powered organ.

Heron is not just a 'hero' for his period. He paved the way of engineering, math, geometry, and physics as well.

To get further information about his inventions, check Heron biography, The MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, and Hero of Alexandria

Via: History MCS

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