The Greeks Did it First: 20 Amazing Ancient Greek Inventions Still in Use Today


Old Steampunk Engine House by Robert Filip
Old Steampunk Engine House by Robert Filip

“Greece: the cradle of Western civilization”, “Athens: the birthplace of democracy”, “Greece: home to the Olympic Games”, we’re all familiar with these quotes and sayings, right?

We’ve heard, maybe, that Hippocrates is the father of Western medicine, Socrates, Plato  and Aristotle are the father’s of Western philosophy, Thespis was the first recorded actor (hence The Thespians), and Homer, (The Iliad  and The Odyssey) and Herodotus (The Histories), were the first historians, and surely, we all know a bit about Greek mythology.

Did you know though, how many useful inventions, still in use today, have ancient Greek origins?

Yes! The Greeks did it first (and better!), and here are twenty amazing Greek inventions to prove it!

In no particular order

1. Alarm clock


Ctesibius' water clock, as visualized by the 17th-century French architect Claude Perrault
Ctesibius' water clock, as visualized by the 17th-century French architect Claude Perrault

The alarm clock or water clock (which didn’t seem to catch on with the Greeks who are renowned for their tardiness!), was used to measure time, and also to make sure speeches given in the courtroom, or by long-winded politicians didn’t go on forever!

Called a clepsydra (water thief), this was the most accurate clock in the world up until the use of the pendulum.

Invented by Ctesibus (285 – 222 BC) from Alexandria, Egypt, the father of pneumatics, an inventor and mathematician, who started his career as a barber.


2. Vending machine


The original vending machine, for holy water. Invented by Hero of Alexandria
The original vending machine, for holy water.
Invented by Hero of Alexandria

The first vending machine was invented by Heron, or Hero, of Alexandria (10 – 70 AD), a mathematician and engineer.

A coin, inserted into the top of the machine, dropped onto a pan which was attached to a lever, which then opened a valve, allowing, wait for it, holy water to flow.

Yes, the first vending machine dispensed holy water!

3. Computer


Antikythera Mechanism, an astronomical calculator, raised from a shipwreck in 1901
Antikythera Mechanism,
 an astronomical calculator, raised from a shipwreck in 1901

Forget all you know about Apple, Bill Gates and Microsoft, the very first computer, an analogue computer, was found by sponge divers, concealed in the wreckage of a ship, off the shore of the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901.

Said to date back to around 87BC, the Antikythera mechanism, as it’s known, was encased in a wooden box, and  consisted of  a clockwork mechanism of about thirty bronze gears and was used to calculate astronomical positions and eclipses, for use in calendars, and other astrological goings on.

The Antikythera Mechanism is now  kept at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece.

4. Central heating


Temple of Artemis at Ephesus  16th-century hand-colored engraving by Martin Heemskerck Evidence of one the first examples of ancient Greek under floor central heating was found here.
Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
 16th-century hand-colored engraving by Martin Heemskerck
Evidence of one the first examples of ancient Greek under floor central heating was found here.

 Before the Romans came up with the hypocaust system, the ancient Minoans of Crete had already invented the first, under-floor central heating.

Slaves kept roaring fires burning, which produced hot air to force hot water through clay pipes under the floor.

One example of ancient central heating was discovered at the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, (Today modern Turkey).


5. Plumbing


Plumbing mechanics in Ancient Greece.
 Waste water was removed by complex sewage systems and released into nearby bodies of water, keeping the towns clean and free from effluent.

Again, as with central heating, the ancient Minoans of Crete, were the first civilizations to have underground pipes, carrying water.

Excavations have also uncovered vast plumbing systems, baths and fountains at ancient Olympia.


6. Shower


Ancient Greek pottery depicting the first showers, which were  invented by the ancient Greeks.
Ancient Greek pottery depicting the first showers, which were
 invented by the ancient Greeks.

Showers, in the form of communal shower rooms, cold water only, the Greeks believed cold water toughened the skin, have been found at the ancient site of Pergamon, an ancient Greek city of Aeolis (along the west and northwest coast of Asia Minor).

The Romans refined the ancient Greek shower system and made use of it in their many baths and spas.


7. Automatic doors


The first automatic doors,  invented by Heron of Alexandria.
The first automatic doors,
invented by Heron of Alexandria.

Heron of Alexandria, of vending machine fame, came up with the idea for automatic doors; a steam powered hydraulic system, using air heated by fire, opened the very first automatic doors belonging to a temple in Alexandria.

 8. Urban planning


Map of Piraeus, showing the grid plan of the city 1908
Map of Piraeus, showing the grid plan of the city 1908

Hippodamus of Miletus, a rather eccentric character, (498 – 408 BC), was an ancient Greek architect, urban planner, physician, mathematician, meteorologist and philosopher, considered to be the Father of European Urban Planning.

Hippodamos drew up plans for the city of Piraeus, (the port of Athens) at the request of Pericles, (Statesman and general of Athens).

According to the ancient philosopher, Aristotle, Hippodamos was the first urban planner to focus attention to proper arrangements of cities.


9. Lighthouse


"The Lighthouse of Alexandria, sometimes called the Pharos of Alexandria" "Old Steampunk Engine House by Robert Filip"
"The Lighthouse of Alexandria, sometimes called the Pharos of Alexandria" 

            The first lighthouse, The lighthouse, or Pharos, of Alexandria, Egypt, one of The Seven Wonders of the World, the tallest manmade structure for centuries, at 120 meters tall, was built by a Greek, Sostratus of Cnidus, between 280 and 247 BC.

Pharos, the location of the lighthouse, was a small island on the western edge of the Nile Delta, opposite the city of Alexandria, and for this reason the word for lighthouse in Greek is pharos.

The lighthouse was slowly destroyed by recurring earthquakes, and disappeared completely in1480, when the Sultan of Egypt, Qaitbay, built a fort on the site of the lighthouse, using the fallen stones of the lighthouse.


10. Steam engine


The ancient invention of the steam engine by the Hero of Alexandria
The ancient invention of the steam engine by the Hero of Alexandria

Forgive me for thinking that someone named Stephenson invented the steam engine, I’m sure I remember something called Stephenson’s Rocket, anyway, it wasn’t him, it was our friend Heron of Alexandria again, the one who invented the first automatic doors and the vending machine.

Called an aeoliplie, or the Hero engine, it’s a simple, bladeless steam turbine which spins when the central water container is heated.


11. Spiral staircase


The first spiral staircase was discovered in one of the five ancient Greek temples  at the Ancient Greek city of Selinute, Sicily, Italy. Photo: Getty images Fr
The first spiral staircase was discovered in one of the five ancient Greek temples
at the Ancient Greek city of Selinunte, Sicily, Italy.
Photo: Getty images Fr

The first spiral staircase ever to be discovered was found in one of the five temples of Selinunte an ancient Greek city, one of the most important Greek colonies in Sicily, founded in around in 654 BC.


12. Clock tower


The Tower of the Winds, also called horologion (timepiece) is an octagonal Pentelic marble clock tower, located at the ancient agora, under the Acroplolis, Plaka, Athens.
The Tower of the Winds, also called horologion (timepiece) is an octagonal Pentelic marble clock tower, located at the ancient agora, under the Acropolis, Plaka, Athens.

The ancient "Tower of the Winds", located in the ancient agora, below the Acropolis, in Plaka, Athens, is the first known clock, tower.

The tower, twelve meters tall, which was driven by water flowing down from the Acropolis, dates back to 100 BC.

Only the tower, which housed a water clock, with eight sun dials and an astrological calendar around the exterior, and a wind vane on the top, remains, the mechanism has disappeared.

13. Maps


Relief representing Anaximander (Roma, Museo Nazionale Romano). Probably Roman copy of an earlier Greek original. This is the only existing image of Anaximander from the ancient world.
Relief representing Anaximander (Roma, Museo Nazionale Romano). Probably Roman copy of an earlier Greek original. This is the only existing image of Anaximander from the ancient world.

Cartography, the art of map making, was first practiced by Anaximander of Miletus (610 – 546), who created the first map of the world, and was the first to approach the use longitude and latitude.

14. Odometer


Heron's odometer was most probably an invention made by Archimedes.
Heron's odometer was most probably an invention made by Archimedes.

The world’s first odometer, “Heron's odometer”, used to measure distance travelled by car or bicycle, or, in those days, I suppose, a donkey, was first described by Vitruvius, a Roman military engineer, who thought it to be the work of Heron of Alexandria, but evidence shows it was actually invented by Archimedes of Syracuse (287 – 212 BC), ancient Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, astronomer and inventor.

15. Watermill


Hydraulic wheel of Perachora. Photo : Augusta Stylianou
Hydraulic wheel of Perachora.
 Photo: Augusta Stylianou 

 “The Hydraulic Wheel of Perahora”, excavated in Perahora, Loutraki (on my doorstep!), which used a horizontal wheel and two millstones, the earliest known water driven mill, was attributed to Philo of Byzantium (280 – 220 BC), also known as Philo Mechanicus, a Greek engineer and physicist.


16. Archimedes screw



Archimedes Screw
Archimedes Screw

The Greek mathematician, of “Eurika” fame, Archimedes, invented a screw pump; used to transfer and lift low lying water into irrigation canals, and to remove bilge water.

17. Anchor


This stone Greek anchor was discovered in La Baie d'Anao (Beaulieu) and dates back to the 6th century BC.  It's on display by the harbour where it was found - Beaulieu-sur-Mer.  Photo:Monte Carlo Daily
This stone Greek anchor was discovered in La Baie d'Anao (Beaulieu) and dates back to the 6th century BC.
 It's on display by the harbour where it was found - Beaulieu-sur-Mer.
Photo:Monte Carlo Daily

It’s not surprising, that the ancient Greeks, famous seafarers and builders of some of the first boats, known for their long sea voyages, in boats that could not be brought to shore, were the first to create anchors, using buckets filled with boulders, and later metal, that eventually took on today’s anchor-shape.


18. Catapult


Ancient Greek Catapult, the Dionysus Repeating Catapult.
Ancient Greek Catapult, the Dionysus Repeating Catapult.

The catapult, which dates back to the third century, and various other ancient Greek artillery, such as the ballista, a Greek projectile weapon, used in the wars of Ancient Greece, so ahead of its time, was used until the Middle Ages, the cannon, associated with Ctesibius of Alexandria and the Gastraphate (the forerunner of the catapult) a hand held large crossbow, were all invented by the ancient Greeks.

19. Astrolabe


Jean Fusoris planispheric astrolabe in Putnam Gallery, 2009- photo Sage Ross
Jean Fusoris planispheric astrolabe in Putnam Gallery, 2009-
photo Sage Ross

Hipparchus of Nicaea (190 – 120), Greek astronomer, geographer and mathematician (he was the founder of trigonometry), invented several astronomical instruments( as well as cataloguing 850 stars) such as the celestial globe and the equatorial ring, used to observe solar equinoxes, but his most famous invention was the astrolabe, used to identify stars and planets.

20. Cheesecake


Cheesecake was invented thousands of years ago by the ancient Greeks! Photo: sugarapron.com
Cheesecake was invented thousands of years ago by the ancient Greeks!
Photo: sugarapron.com

I left the best until last, the delicious dessert, well-known the world over, and still enjoyed today by millions; the cheesecake, was invented by the ancient Greeks!

Cheesecake was eaten by the ancient Greeks as far back as the fifth century BC, thought to be a source of energy; it was given to athletes, competing in the first Olympic Games, 776 BC, to give them strength.

Ancient Greek physician, Aegimus even wrote a book about the art of making cheesecake.
The the oldest known surviving Greek cheesecake recipe was made by the writer Athenaeus in 230 A.D:

“Pound the cheese until it is smooth, mix it in a brass pan with honey and spring wheat flour, heat the cheesecake “in one mass”, allow to cool, then serve.”

 After conquering Greece, the Romans adopted the Greek cheesecake, modified it and called it “libuma”.

So, the next time you are caught up in an automatic door, your plumbing goes on the blink, or your alarm clock fails to wake you, you know what to do:


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