Wednesday, April 07, 2010

An ancient mechanical genius you may NOT know

We have all heard the great inventors of antiquity such as Archimedes and Hero. Here is another name worth knowing: Al-Jazari. Al-Jazari was an scholar, inventor, engineer, craftsman, artist, mathematician and astronomer from Mesopotamia, who lived from about 1136 to 1206. He wrote The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, which describes some fifty sophisticated machines.

The video clip shown here from Ancient Discoveries covers Al-Jazari's elephant clock -- a fantastically elaborate device which employed automata. There are a working reproductions of the elephant clock in Dubai and Switzerland.

Here is the Wikipedia article for Al Jazari. Here is the article on the elephant clock.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

The coolest maker(s) of things in the world

Recently, I did a post about a book covering The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria. To get a better sense for some of the inventions this ancient genius came up with check out this segment of The History Channel's series titled Ancient Discoveries. The amazingly talented maker of technical and historical reproductions, Richard Windley, recreated a working version of Hero's archer and dragon automaton for the show.

Learn more about Richard Windely's historical recreations on his web site.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Book: The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria

The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria
Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria (c. 10-70 AD) was a prolific inventor and mathematician and is one of the first known creators of automata in the history of Western civilization. His original works were destroyed in the fire that consumed the ancient library in Alexandria, but some of his work survived by way of copies that were made in Arabic. Here is his work on Pneumatics, which included a working steam engine -- an invention that was perhaps several thousand years ahead of its time.

Here is the book The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Automta in antiquity article from SPIEGEL Online

Automta in antiquity article from Speigel Online
The German magazine SPIEGELhas published an article on automata in antiquity. least that's what I believe it is about. I cannot read German. Nevertheless, they have a number of wonderful drawings and photographs that accompany the article.

Once again the credit must go to Spiel und Kunst mit Mechanik for finding this great resource.

Shown above is a diagram of Hero of Alexandria's clever method for automatically opening temple doors. The fire in the pot, creates pressure in the large water tank. This causes water to spill into the bucket, the weight of which works against the counterweight to rotate the vertical axle attached to the temple door. Very clever. Done with the right amount of ceremony, this must have seemed very magical indeed to the ancient Greeks.

Here is a link to the photoset associated with the article. If you are able to read German, you might also like to read the original article on automata in antiquity.

[ Thanks once again to Falk Keuten! ]

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Dunninger's Encyclopedia of Magic in MAKE

I'm thrilled to have played a small part in MAKE Magazine's latest issue, Volume 13. The theme of the issue is magic. I review a classic book on the subject: Dunningers Complete Encyclopedia Of Magic.

Magicians have a long history of being exceptional makers. Just to assure you that this post is on-topic, the book contains details of one of Hero of Alexandria's automata and instructions on marionette construction.

The book is out-of-print, but available used online.

Pick up a copy of MAKE, Volume 13 to read my concise book review. The issue also has a TON of articles on magic, makers, and cool things to make for yourself.

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Saturday, July 07, 2007

New Scientist Recreates Heron's Automata Mover

Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria is one of the first well-documented automata-makers in history. He designed many ingenious devices. The folks over at The New Scientist have made a working model of a self-propelled, programmable cart that was used on stage. Very cool.

I learned of the video first from

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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Pneumatic Automata by Hero of Alexandria

One of the earliest documented automata makers was Hero of Alexandria. There is now an online English translation of his work on pneumatics. Be sure to check out chapter 37 in which he describes his method to open temple doors by fire on an altar. Clever.

Here's the online edition of The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria

You might be able to find a used printed copy of The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria at

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