We tend to think of mechanical contrivances as products of the industrial revolution and true automation as something computers handle. Yet even before computers, automation existed — using timing motors and cams and other mechanical contraptions. But it might surprise you to know that there was actually some sophisticated automation going way back. Really way back, invented in a world without computers, CAD software, or even electricity. For example, around 50 AD an inventor named Hero — sometimes known as Heron — built machines powered by steam and wind. His inventions included vending machines and music players.
It is hard to imagine what kind of music player or, indeed, vending machine you could build in 50AD. Some of Hero’s inventions were used in temples to, for example, dispense holy water. Others were used in theater to do things like automatically lighting a fire or creating thunder effects. There was even an entirely automated puppet show that used knotted ropes to put on a ten-minute production with no human assistance.
Continue reading “Historical Hackers: Hero Builds Vending Machines”
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.
Continue reading “Making A Modern Version Of A Steam Engine From Antiquity”