Making A Modern Version Of A Steam Engine From Antiquity

Imagine traveling back in time about 2,200 years, to when nothing moves faster than the speed at which muscle or wind can move it. Think about how mind-shattering it would have been to see something like Hero’s Engine, the first known example of a steam turbine. To see a sphere whizzing about trailing plumes of steam while flames licked around it would likely have been a nearly mystical experience.

Of course we can’t go back in time like that, but seeing a modern replica of Hero’s Engine built and tested probably isn’t too far from such an experience. The engine, also known as an aeolopile, was made by the crew over at [Make It Extreme], whose metalworking videos are always a treat to watch. The rotor of the engine, which is fabricated from a pair of hemispherical bowls welded together, is supported by pipes penetrating the lid of a large kettle. [Make It Extreme] took great pains to make the engine safe, with relief valves and a pressure gauge that the original couldn’t have included. The aeolopile has a great look and bears a strong resemblance to descriptions of the device that may or may not have actually been invented by Greek mathemetician [Heron of Alexandria], and as the video below shows, when it spins up it puts on a great show.

One can’t help but wonder how something like this was invented without someone — anyone — taking the next logical step. That it was treated only as a curiosity and didn’t kick off the industrial revolution two millennia early boggles the mind. And while we’ve seen far, far simpler versions of Hero’s Engine before, this one really takes the cake on metalworking prowess.

28 thoughts on “Making A Modern Version Of A Steam Engine From Antiquity

  1. If he’d come up with the idea of a belt, pullies, and a rotary fan the thing would have been all the rage in upper class Greek homes for cooling. Put the steam thing outdoors with the belt running through a wall to drive a fan indoors. Efficiency improvements would surely have come along quickly.

  2. Between this, and the Antikythera mechanism one has to wonder what key ingredients were missing from getting the industrial revolution started at that time. Was it issues with materials, or more human factors like government and economics?

    1. I would say it was a combination of factors – but human factional squabbles and materials both play a big part. You can’t have an industrial revolution without the coal, ores and available manpower – and to get all of those things requires the raw materials being easily traded or all owned by one power, and that power to have mastered agriculture enough to feed so many workers that do nothing at all to feed themselves.

      Then you need there to be a class of people who do not have to work in the usual sense with time to really study and learn sciences (probably communicating with each other as good ideas rarely come in a complete vacuume) – which means the rich folks have to have an interest in the workings of the world. Which hasn’t always been socially acceptable – faith in a church (which could even be why they are wealthy enough leisure time) for example mean those questions and ideas are not permitted then or at the very least can’t be shared…

      From what I know of the Greek history I’d say it was that they were too factional so the sharing of resources and ideas across the rival political spheres held them back.. They also didn’t have to my knowledge all the required raw materials themselves. The Roman Empire was closer and probably could have kicked it off if they had held together, keeping their social problems in check.

      But ultimately I would say its largely inertia – we are a more connected and educated world than ever before yet the concepts and science still take decades to be accepted widely, especially if they lead to an unpopular/unprofitable inconvenient road to walk.

    2. How close were these to the Bronze Age Collapse? The problem with bronze is not so much being weaker than iron, but requiring transcontinental trade to bring together the ingredients. So maybe material would have been the limiting factor.

    3. If steam power is all you care about then the approaching two thousand years of metallurgy would have been sorely missed.
      The lack of machines to power, remember even when steam power was beginning the engines were huge and used for very large stationary mechanisms that were really getting quite complicated.
      The scientific method was in no one’s mind, the mathematics were rudimentary.
      Even if people did try to build higher torque aeromobilae in ancient Greece with the best materials of the day the best they could have expected was an exploding kettle.

      1. There is a great deal you can do without better metallurgy.. Heck you could build a steam engine entirely in something really soft like gold if you so desired. And the Bronze and Brass materials are well established, iron has been around in primitive forms for a while too.

        To build a giant Newcomen style engine based on these principles and the tech of the time is trivial but expensive assuming you have the idea then. And if your spinning kettle does blow up just make it thicker..

        Yes modern science is still some way off but these people were far from stupid, and while they couldn’t go we want enough torque to lift this block of stone up the wall, so we need this pressure, which means…..and do the mathematics for all of it, mathematics of the day was pretty complete. There’s a reason more than a few therom are named after Greeks.

        They clearly understood gearing, and material properties so it really could have been made useful. What they didn’t have was enough people seeing that demonstration and then going ‘Wow lets try and use this for ‘ (in ancient Greek, Latin, whatever language they preferred)…

    1. I looked into it a while back, I wanted to make a stirling but not one of those low thermal delta ones (the ones that can run on the palm of your hand) I wanted a proper flame driven one, so the design requirements are a bit closer to a steam engine.

      Assembled from big box? Not really. Assembled from amazon with minimal work? Maybe. The easiest way would be to use glass syringes (basically a piston and cylinder ready to go). Another way is to use epoxy putty to “cast” a piston for any tube/cylinder (like glass test tube or copper pipe). The steam chamber can be made from soldered copper pipe.

      My plan was to 3d print the rest of the thing, but I’m sure one could use wood or whatever. I gave up when the epoxy putty stuck to my cylinder and broke it but I’m planning to give it another go this week.

    2. You can even build a real piston powered steam engine with wood if you really want to… I wouldn’t suggest it is a good idea though, all that warping/ swelling etc to take account of in the design and then wood burns rather well if the heat generation method throws soot etc…

  3. Hero’s engine is a very low torque device capable of only moderate speed. To make a steam engine with power adequate for an industrial revolution, a piston engine would have been required. Also a plentiful supply of fuel. Wind power would have been more suitable for the technology of that age.

  4. I am disappointed in how complicated such a simple device gets. I would have made it spin the other way around and just had the pressure vessel and the jets. Put your fire under it and it goes. The tin can model I built from a book in the library hung from a string. I think that was the same book that had the infamous coal gas experiment that created such I stink I got banned from playing with the stove. My mother did not appreciate the neat-o factor in many of my endeavors.

    1. It was built based on pictures and descriptions that have been handed down. I don’t believe there was a boiler with steam pipes into the rotating part personally, certainly not with ball bearings!

  5. >That it was treated only as a curiosity and didn’t kick off the industrial revolution two millennia early boggles the mind.

    A society that keeps slaves does not need steam engines. The Industrial Revolution had to wait for the Enlightenment.

    1. Not really, though the two certainly have links historically.
      But mechanisation really starts off long before Slavery was considered in anything like a bad light – you get more work out of your slaves, saving you from buying so many to get the job done, or enabling you to have more luxuries with the slave workforce doing other jobs too. So there isn’t really a reason why slave societies couldn’t or wouldn’t use steam.

      1. For instance, Whitney’s Cotton Gin (as I have been told/sold) increased slavery, by making it easier to use cotton as a fabric, cotton plantations existed/grew as a result. And around that time (early 19th Century) steam engines in England textile mills increased demand for the sweatshops and child labor in the mills and coal mines.

        1. I forget the name, but there’s a law of economics which states that any improvement which makes the use of a resource more efficient will lead to *more* consumption of that resource, not less.

          1. I can see that in my own life.
            I have a lot of electronic assemblies (Arduino, Pi, STMicro, and their associated sensor/control boards), which I wouldn’t have, if they were not cheaply made in China.

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