Ancient science in contemporary times

Ancient Rome has had a lasting impact on the world, particularly on Western cultures. You may be surprised to hear that many of the objects, concepts, technologies and machines from Ancient Rome are still part of our contemporary lives.

Ancient Rome: The Empire that Shaped the World exhibition includes working reconstructions of ancient machines and other technical innovations using materials of the era – wood, iron cloth, ropes and bronze.

The reconstructions were made using primary sources, including the books De Architectura by Vitruvius, Roman architect and engineer of 1st century BCE and a contemporary of Caesar and Cicero. This series of 10 books was probably written between 29 BCE and 23 CE. It described the machines and materials used for engineering structures such as hoists, cranes and pulleys; as well as war machines such as catapults, ballistae and siege machines.

Here we showcase a few of the exhibitions reconstructions and show how the genius of the Roman Empire transcends modern times.

LAND ODOMETER

A device created for measuring distances, Roman odometers were also modified for use on water (see naval odometer below).

Model features

  • Model shows a cart with the odometer attached to the cart’s axle.
  • Rear wheel of cart has a diameter of 1.184 m.
  • Large vertical gear has 400 teeth on rim and a single tooth on the inside vertical face.
  • Horizontal gear has holes filled with pebbles.

How it works

  • As the cart goes forward, the wheels on the cart turn, and a single tooth on the cart pushes around the huge 400-tooth gear. For every 400 rotations of the cart wheel, the large gear moves one rotation.
  • The single tooth on the inside face of the large gear wheel engages with the horizontal gear and pushes it one position.
  • A pebble drops into a container for each position it moves.
  • Because the cart wheel has to do 400 revolutions to go a mile, each full revolution of the large gear wheel and each pebble drop represents a mile.
  • At the end of the journey, the operator would count the number of pebbles in the container and know how many miles had been travelled.

In the modern day

  • The car’s odometer, now digital, is probably the most well-known modern use of an odometer.
  • The measuring wheel, or trundle wheel, is still used today to measure out distances such as the running track on a school oval.

Further reading

Callegari, M., Brillarelli, S., & Scoccia, C. (2020). Archimedes, Vitruvius and Leonardo: the odometer connection. Advances in Historical Studies9(5), 330-343.

NAVAL ODOMETER

Based on the land odometer, this machine was designed to measure distances at sea and was used by Roman military fleets.

Model features

  • Similar to land odometer, but with paddle wheel instead of cart wheel.

How it works

  • As for land odometer, with each turn of the paddle wheel engaging the gears so that a pebble dropped into a container for each nautical mile travelled.
  • Not as accurate as the land odometer, because of strong and varying sea currents.

In the modern day

A nautical mile is based on the circumference of the earth and is equal to one minute of latitude. Lines of latitude are circles going around the earth, parallel to the equator. The circles are divided into 360 degrees, which can then be divided into 60 minutes. One nautical mile is slightly more than a statute mile.

In modern days, satellite navigation and GPS along with charts are used to measure distances at sea.

PULLEYS

Pulleys are simple machines that help lift and drag heavy weights. They were used by the Romans in civil engineering, shipbuilding and the construction of major infrastructure such as roads, ports and aqueducts.

Model features

  • Each pulley is a wheel with a grooved edge.
  • Wheel held in place by an axle which allows it to spin freely.
  • Flexible rope runs through the groove of the pulley.
  • Rope attached to the weight.
  • Each bag is the same weight.
  • This pulley system uses two wheels; the one in the middle uses four wheels; and the one on the right uses six wheels.

How it works

  • One wheel does not reduce the effort or amount of work required to lift the object – it just changes the direction of the force you apply (so downwards).
  • Two wheels halve the force needed. Three wheels cut the lifting force to a third, and so on.

In the modern day

Pulleys are used everywhere today. For example:

  • Pulling curtains up and down
  • Hoisting a flag up or down a flagpole
  • Operating a garage door
  • Lifting and lowering sails on a yacht
  • Weight machines in a gym

CALCATORIAN CRANE

This is a scale model of a machine created for lifting and moving heavy loads up to 21 tonnes. The actual machine was more than 10 metres high.

Model features

  • ‘Hamster wheel’ that people walked in to lower and raise the crane ropes
  • Rope wound onto spindle
  • Pulley at top of crane arm
  • Pulleys and ropes at base of crane

How it works

  • Crane powered by humans climbing the steps inside the giant circular treadmill (like a hamster wheel).
  • Axle of the treadmill extends into a spindle.
  • Rope attached to spindle then up through a pulley to which the load being lifted is attached.
  • Moving the treadwheel winds the rope around the spindle, lifting or lowering the load.
  • Load could be positioned by raising or lowering the A-shaped pivoting arm using the four ropes attached to the pulleys.

In the modern day

Did you know that treadmill-operated cranes fell into disuse in Western Europe after the ancient Roman era, but were ‘reinvented’ in the 13th century during mediaeval times.  

Further reading

This video shows a mediaeval treadmill crane being used to pick up a car.

Cecarelli, V. (2020). Design and reconstruction of an ancient Roman crane. Advances in Historical Studies9(5), 261-283.

ARCHIMEDES’S SCREW

This machine was designed to lift water up a hill and to drain marshlands to build roads. Archimedes the great Greek scientist is credited with this invention but it was known since the ancient Egyptians. The Romans utlised the invention when building their aqueducts.

Model features

  • Spiral inside large hollow wooden cylinder
  • Tilted at 45 degree angle
  • Vegetable tar (extracted from resin of pine or fir) to seal the joints of cylinder
  • Open at ends only

How it works

  • Bottom of cylinder rests in the water needing to be drained or lifted.
  • Water enters lowest point of spiral.
  • Spiral rotated by turning handle.
  • Water trapped inside spiral and pushed up through the swirls and out the top.  

In the modern day

Today we use electricity or diesel power to pump water uphill but the screw mechanism is the same.

Ancient Rome: The Empire that Shaped the World was produced by Artisans of Florence International (Australia) in collaboration with the Niccolai Group.

The exhibition is on at Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville until Sunday 7 November 2021. From 18 September- 4 October 2021 kids can get hands-on in creating their own Roman machines with the Ancient Science school holiday program.

Written and compiled by Claire Speedie, Exhibitions and Public Programs Officer, Museum of Tropical Queensland using resources from the exhibition.

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