Hero of Alexandria, on the making of automata

The technical works of antiquity are not well known, not least because modern technical knowledge is often necessary to understand them.  For instance a reading of an alchemical work may well baffle anyone without a Chemistry degree!  So … they go untranslated and unread.

Four years ago I listed the works of the engineer, Hero of Alexandria, here.  In this I included a reference to a translation of his work Peri automatopoietikes, on making automata: Susan Murphy, “Heron of Alexandria’s On Automaton-making“, in: History of Technology 17 (1995), 1-46.  At the time I was quite unable to locate this journal, or the translation, so the matter went no further.

A correspondent asked about this a couple of weeks ago, and then – mirabile dictu – was able to obtain a PDF by mysterious means.  The PDF originated in Sydney University library, from whose catalogue I learned that it was published in London by Mansell.  It seems that the “journal” is actually a series of books, published under the imprint of Mansell of London, by none other than Bloomsbury Press.  It is a series aimed at engineers, and so naturally shelved away from the sort of material with which we are familiar.  In fact the series seems to be widely held, and it is merely the rather generic title which makes searching difficult.

Dr Murphy’s article is 44 pages long – can that really be the size of the volume? – and itself is full of interest.  I learn that the work is illustrated in the manuscripts, with diagrams that may go back to the author but are supposedly corrupt.  The critical edition of the text does not trouble to reproduce them – no doubt because of the difficulties of printing coloured photographs – but instead has drawings by a modern author, based upon them.

The work describes the construction of  two automata, as an example of two types of automaton.

The first is a mobile shrine of Dionysus, complete with little figurines of the god and his worshippers.  This rolls of its own accord on a wheeled base to a specified point, at which the figurines enact a scene of sacrifice and pouring libations.  It then returns to the original point.

The second is a minature theatre, which stages a complete tragedy when activated.

Both types of automaton rely on a descending counterweight and various cords and axles – essentially upon clockwork.

The opening section of the work, before the technical receipes, is itself rather interesting.


Book I

1. 1. The study of automaton-making has been considered by our predecessors worthy of acceptance, both because of the complexity of the craftsmanship involved and because of the striking nature of the spectacle. For, to speak briefly, every facet of mechanics is encompassed within automaton-making, in the completion of its several parts.

2. These are the topics to be discussed: shrines or altars of appropriate size are constructed, which move forward of themselves and stop at specified locations; and each of the figures inside them moves independently according to the argument of the arrangement or story; and then they move back to their original position. Thus such realizations of automata are called mobile.

3. But there is another kind, which is called stationary, and its function is as follows: a toy stage with open doors stands on a pillar, and inside it an arrangement of figures has been set up in line with some story.

4. To begin with, the stage is closed, and then the doors open by themselves, and the painted representation of the figures is displayed. After a little while the doors close and open again of their own accord, and another arrangement of figures, sequential to the first one, appears. Again the doors are closed and opened and yet another arrangement, which logically follows the one before it, appears; and either this completes the planned story, or yet another display appears after this one, until the story finally is finished.

5. And when the figures which have been described are shown in the theatre each one can be shown in motion, if the story demands; for instance, some sawing, some chopping with the adze, some working with hammers or axes – making a noise with each blow, just as they would in real life.

6. Other movements can be effected below the stage; for instance, lighting fires or making figures which were not visible at first appear and then disappear again. Simply, anyone can move the figures as he chooses, without anybody being near them.

7. But the mechanism of the stationary automata is safer and less risky and more adaptable to every requirement than that of the moving ones. Older generations called such feats of craftsmanship miraculous because they offered an amazing spectacle.

8. Therefore, in this book I am going to write about moving automata, and set out my own complex scenario, which is adaptable to every other scenario, so that someone who wanted to offer a different presentation would not lack anything for the implementation of his own scenario. In the following book I talk about stationary automata.

Well worth hunting out this volume, if you have even the slightest interest in ancient technology.


Translations of the works of Hero of Alexandria

The appearance of a manuscript of works by the ancient engineer, Hero of Alexandria (ca. 62 AD) online at the British Library led me to look online for an English translation for his Automata.  I had no luck, but I thought that some notes on what he wrote and how we got it might be useful.

The Greek texts, with German translations, are all available in W. Schmidt, Heronis Alexandrini Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia, in 5 volumes, Teubner, 1899 etc.  These are online here.

The mechanical works include: [1]

  •  The Pneumatica in 2 books, covering devices powered by compressed air, steam and water. An old English translation exists and is online: The pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria, 1851; as does an old French translation.[2]
  •  Peri automatopoietikes or Automata, on ways to fake miracles in temples.  An old partial French translation exists: Victor Prou, Les théâtres d’automates en Grèce au IIe siècle avant l’ère chrétienne d’après les Automata d’Héron d’Alexandrie, Paris, 1881: Greek text with French translation of section 2 of the Automata: p. 94-136.  This is online at Remacle.org[3]  An English translation supposedly exists: Susan Murphy, “Heron of Alexandria’s ‘On Automaton-making,'” History of Technology 17, 1995, pp 1-44;[4] and of selections in Finlay McCourt, “An examination of the mechanisms of movement in Heron of Alexandria’s ‘On Automaton-making'”, in: T. Koetsier &c, Explorations in the history of machines and mechanisms, 2012 (preview). Update (2020): F. Grillo’s Hero of Alexandria’s Automata: A critical edition and translation, diss (Glasgow), 2019 (online here).
  •  The Mechanica in 3 books survives only in Arabic, in a translation made by Qosta ibn Luka in the 9th century.  In the 17th century Grolius brought back a 16th century manuscript of it from the Orient, thereby making it accessible.  The first full edition and a French translation of this was by the baron Carra de Vaux in 1893.[5]  It covers weight-moving machines.
  •  The Dioptra covers instruments for sighting and other purposes.  A partial English translation supposedly exists from 1963[6]
  •  The Catoptrica, on mirrors.  Preserved only in Latin.

I also found a mistake in the literature: Drachmann’s Mechanical technology does NOT contain translations of any of his works, but is rather a commentary on the Mechanica (only), albeit with excerpts embedded.[9]  Unfortunately it does not specify which works.

There are also two artillery manuals covering different types of catapult.

  •  The Belopoeica.
  •  The Cheiroballistra, (=De constructione et mensura manubalistae)

These are both translated into English with facing Greek text and useful notes following in Marsden, E. W.: Greek and Roman artillery: technical treatises. Oxford, 1969, which also includes a useful introduction[10].  It seems that a bunch of these manuals travelled down the centuries together, and I will post on the manuscript tradition.  An 1883 French translation of the second work exists and is online.[11]

Hero also wrote a number of mathematical works.

  • The Metrica in 3 books, on the measurement and division of surfaces and bodies.  There is an English translation of all three books in “Codex Constantinopolitanus Palatii Veteris, edited by E.M.Bruins”, volume 3, Brill (1964), starting at page 182.

  • The Definitiones, on geometrical terms.

  • The Geometrica, the  Stereometrica, and the Peri metron (or On Measures); all on measurement, all revised by later editors.

  • The Geodaesia and Geoponica (=Liber geoponicus) on measurement of land.

  •  A commentary on Euclid is extant in substantial quotations in the 10th c. Arabic writer an-Nairizi (=Anaritius), which was composed in Arabic and then translated into Latin.[12]

Some extracts in French are online at Remacle.org.[13]

Hero’s writings, apart from the Belopoeika, were published with a German translations in Heronis Alexandrini Opera.[14]  This seems to be Herons von Alexandria Mechanik und Katoptrik, herausgegeben und ubersetzt von L. Nix und W. Schmidt (Heronis Alexandrini, Opera quae supersunt omnia, Leipzig, 1900 f.).[15].  I was able to locate a few volumes online: vol.1, 1899; vol.1, supplementum, 1899; vol.2, fasc.1 (backwards!) 1900; vol.3, 1903.  But I think there are five volumes, and obviously we’re missing a lot here.

There is also an article on why Hero thought that automata could be used in temples: Karin Tybjerg, “Wonder-making and philosophical wonder in Hero of Alexandria”, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 34 (2003) 443-466 (abstract).

So the sum total of all of this is rather disappointing!  Few of his works have been translated into English, and even the Greek-German critical text, which is out of copyright, is not easily accessible.

It’s worth considering that Hero may have been a contemporary of the apostles, or at least late first century, although his dates are vague.

UPDATE: I find that an excellent source for these works is here, at http://www.wilbourhall.org/index.html#hero.  All the volumes of the edition are here, often based on versions at Gallica.  In addition an-Nairizi / Anaritius is also there.  The site is somewhat slow, however, but the author has done a great deal of work to make these writers accessible — well done!

UPDATE 7th April 2016:  I have learned this week of a volume containing significant English translations from the works of Hero of Alexandria.  It is Morris R. Cohen and Israel E. Drabkin, A Source Book in Greek Science, Harvard, 1958.

  1. [1]F. N. Magill and Christian J. Moose, Dictionary of World Biography: The ancient world, 2003. There is a Google books preview of the section on Hero, starting on p.514.
  2. [2]http://remacle.org/bloodwolf/erudits/heron/pneumatiques.htm
  3. [3]http://remacle.org/bloodwolf/erudits/heron/theatre.htm
  4. [4]So Koetiser, p.198History of Technology is not a journal, but a book series. It was and is published by Mansell of London, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing.  A list of volumes is here.  A copy of this volume exists at Sydney University Library.
  5. [5]W. R. Laird, S. Roux: Mechanics and natural philosophy before the scientific revolution, 2008. p.197; Heron d’Alexandrie, Les Mechaniques, 1894 (Google books).  Online at Remacle.org here: http://remacle.org/bloodwolf/erudits/heron/table.htm
  6. [7]
  7. [8]
  8. [6]This annoyingly vague information from F. N. Magill, Dictionary of World Biography 1, p.514; p.517 refers to A.G. Drachmann, The mechanical technology of Greek and Roman antiquity: a study of the literary sources, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1963, as containing “translations of Hero’s mechanical writings”.  This is probably what Magill was referring to.[7]; a translation of a portion in M.J. Taunton Lewis, Surveying instruments of Greece and Rome, Cambridge, 2001, p.259-62;  and a French translation by Victor Prou is online.[8]1888: online at http://remacle.org/bloodwolf/erudits/heron/dioptre.htm
  9. [9]Magill and Moose,  p.517: Drachmann, Aage Gerhardt, The mechanical technology of Greek and Roman antiquity: a study of the literary sources. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1963: “Contains translations of Hero’s mechanical writings, with useful running commentary.”
  10. [10]I had access to the book on Friday 25/11/11.
  11. [11]Victor Prou, La chirobaliste d’Héron d’Alexandrie, Paris, 1883: online at remacle.org: http://remacle.org/bloodwolf/erudits/heronalexandrie/chirobaliste.htm.
  12. [12]Eleanor Dickey, Ancient Greek scholarship, p.60: “For editions and translations see Mansfield 1998, 26 n.90”
  13. [13]http://remacle.org/bloodwolf/erudits/heron/fragments.htm
  14. [14]Pamela O. Long, Openness, secrecy, authorship: technical arts and the culture of knowledge, 2001, p.258, n.56.
  15. [15]A. I. Sabra, Theories of light from Descartes to Newton, 1981, p.70, n.4