The History Buff's Guide

5 Cool Things from Ancient Greece: Part 3

Sit down, strap in, and get ready for round three of our Ancient Greek innovation series! Today we cover some of the more obscure, funny, and downright clever inventions that came from these sharp Mediterranean minds over two millennia ago. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2, where we explore even more things the Greeks gave the modern world.


Often, when we’re not sure where something came from, it’s usually a safe bet to shrug your shoulders and blame the Greeks. But if someone asked you who invented the vending machine you’re standing in front of (deliberating between a green apple and a Snickers), ancient Greece probably wouldn’t cross your mind. Yet, believe it or not, we have our toga-clad friends to thank… again.

Between 10 AD and 70 AD, there lived a Greek mathematician and inventor named Hero of Alexandria. He designed and engineered dozens of neat inventions, including an early iteration of the steam engine. But Hero is perhaps best remembered as the “Father of the Vending Machine.”

Hero devised a simple lever and pulley system to dispense not Coca-Cola, but holy water. That’s right — all a worshipper had to do for some miracle juice was place a coin through a slot. The coin’s pressure on the lever would lift it from its inhibitory position, allowing water to flow into your cup. Once the coin reached the end of the lever it would fall off and the stream would cease as the lever fell back into place.



While digital alarm clocks are decidedly modern, we know of two ways the Greeks innovated the world’s first mechanical versions. The philosopher Plato reportedly fashioned an alarm clock out of a common device known as a water clock. The device was a popular way to tell time and worked similarly to an hour glass; water would run from one container into another through a small opening. By monitoring the position of the water, one could see how much time had passed.

But Plato, clever as he was, pimped out his own water clock with an extra filling tube that functioned as a siphon. When the container was full, water would travel down the siphon, rushing quickly into the lower container. The lower container was sealed but for a small hole on top. As water poured in, a noise like a tea kettle hissing would escape through this opening, thereby functioning as an alarm clock. You can witness it here.

It’s said that Plato relied on his alarm clock twice a day: Once at dawn, to ensure he woke up at a reasonable hour, and once in the evening, to signal to his pupils the start of his lecture.

A more rudimentary version of the mechanical alarm clock was developed by another Greek named Ctesibius. His lo-tech version also relied on the water clock design, but integrated a system of small rocks that would fall when the water reached a certain height. Unfortunately, Ctesibius overslept most days, as his alarm simply wasn’t loud enough.



Known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was constructed by Sostratus of Cnidus in the 3rd-century BCE. The impressive structure was erected near the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria, on the island of Pharos. It held the title of largest man-made structure for several consecutive centuries, standing on a rocky outcrop above the sea at a height of 120 meters (420 feet).

As the invention of the lighthouse predated the invention of the light bulb (by a fairly significant margin), the Greeks instead filled the lantern room with wick lamps to create a guiding glow for approaching ships. It’s said that the light it produced extended for some three miles out to sea — not too bad for a glorified candle, eh?

Interested in visiting this ancient wonder? Me too! Unfortunately for us, the Lighthouse began its slow demise in the 10th-century AD; between 956 and 1303, the lighthouse was damaged by three major earthquakes. The last of these was the magnitude-eight Crete Earthquake. The event was so violent that it roused the seas, resulting in massive tidal waves in both Crete and Alexandria and causing much flooding.

Although a shadow of its former self, the Lighthouse remained standing until 1480 and was the third longest-standing Wonder after the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. Its stones were ultimately re-purposed to build the Citadel of Qaitbay (a defensive fortress in Alexandria you actually can still visit). Today, the only Wonder which remains is the tiresomely popular Great Pyramid of Giza.



If you own a car, you’re probably intimately acquainted with your dashboard: the indicators and meters and displays that give you the low-down for a safe and informed journey. One of the most easily recognized metrics is the odometer, which measures the distance you’ve traveled in your vehicle.

An early mention of the odometer appears sometime in 1st-century BCE Rome: Vitruvius, renowned Roman architect and engineer, used a type of odometer himself. The device could be attached to a chariot and mechanically record the distance travelled by horses. In his work, Vitruvius credits the device to the Greek inventor, Archimedes of Syracuse, who had lived more than 100 years earlier. Today, some scholars believe Hero of Alexandria (remember the vending machine?) was the true mind behind the odometer, as reference to a similar device can be found in his work, Dioptra.

Still, other sources indicate that Alexander the Great may have been the first to use an odometer as early as the 3rd-century BCE. It’s said that Alexander was so interested in the distances between the places where he campaigned that his army included a fleet of bematists — soldiers whose job it was to count their steps! The odometer was also independently invented in 1st-century AD China.



The Greek island of Crete was a flourishing locus of civilization. According to sources, Cretans were the world’s first plumbers, having engineered clay pipes to deliver clean water through underground channels. The pipes not only connected natural sources to homes and public fountains, but were also used to transport sewage and waste water away.

In fact, Greek plumbing was so sophisticated that it even made the invention of flush toilets possible, which actually date way back to the 18th-century BCE! Other uses for plumbing were also discovered. In Athens, indoor plumbing was used to create pressurized showers and complex heating systems.


Ladies and gentlemen, tip your hats once more to the ancient Greeks, as this concludes our series on their contributions to the modern world. If you still can’t get enough ancient history, don’t forget to check out THE STELLA’s History Buff’s Guide to Travel for more fascinating articles! And, to experience these historic lands first-hand, remember to book you Mediterranean getaway today!

Chafic LaRochelle

Author Chafic LaRochelle

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