Heron's Automatic Machines

Among ancient diagrams, none exercise greater fascination for modern people than the sketches of amusing little self-driven machines by the first-century engineer Hero of Alexandria (or Heron to use the Greek form). These diagrams were effectively discarded and redrawn from scratch in the Nix-Schmidt edition of the Automata of 1899 (downloadable as Hero, vol I at WilbourHall.org).

Heron's designs are especially interesting because the motions of the gadgets are semi-programmable, thanks to cords that unroll from rods with reversing windings. With our refound interest in how the antique world visualized, it is naturally desirable to see what the manuscript tradition tells us about Heron's own drawings, rather than what a 19th-century scholar did to "correct" them.

This return to the sources has come a long way, especially in regard to diagrams of ancient geometry. Professor Ken Saito (who is one of the stars of Netz and Noel's The Archimedes Codex) compares plots of Euclidean geometrical diagrams from the different manuscripts in profound detail, both on his website GreekMath.org and in SCIAMVS, the journal where he sits on the editorial board. But on Heron, there seems to be less available. The dean of antiquities bloggers, Roger Pearse, threw out the question some years back about where the manuscripts are and recently returned to the question.

From Francesco Grillo, I learn that 39 manuscripts survive of the Automata or Περὶ αὐτοματοποιητικῆς (‘On the Making of Automata’). Ambrosetti (below) offers a database of them. Schmidt used the following four of them for his 1899 edition:
  • A cod Marcianus 516, 13th century, not online
  • G cod Gudianus 19, 16th century, not online
  • T cod Taurinensis B.V.20, dated 1541, not online
  • M cod Magliabecchianus II. III 36, 16th century, not online

Only one of these, A, was listed as of 2016-02-13 on the page dealing with the Automata at Pinakes, the best online springboard to Greek manuscripts. As far as I can tell, M is an item in the collection of Antonio Magliabechi (1633-1714) at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze but I cannot find a catalog link to any shelf-mark Magl. III II 36 there. Grillo indicates that T and M are now regarded as the 'worst' branch of the tradition.

I actually had far more difficulty matching Schmidt's drawings to those in the manuscripts than I was expecting to have. After some fumbling, I have gathered here images of one of Heron's devices, a kind of mechanical dimmer switch which allows a flame to gradually flare up, which turns out to be Schmidt figure 107. Comparing this to the manuscripts, one sees how peremptory he was in simply inventing a whole new figure:

  1. BAV: Barb.gr.261  
  2. BL: Harley 5605  
  3. BL: Harley 5589
  4. BL: Burney 108 
It will be interesting to see if the whole manuscript tradition is uniform in the way these diagrams are formed. Not yet online are:
  1. ÖNB 
  2. BNF
  3. BNE, MSS/4788
  4. BSB graec. 431
  5. BSB graec. 577 
  6. Copenhagen 
Also of interest is the 1589 Venice edition of Heron in Italian by Bernardino Baldi (BSB) printed before some of the above manuscripts were made. It ends before the figure above.

Here is some of the literature I have consulted:

Ambrosetti, Nadia. “Cultural Roots of Technology: An Interdisciplinary Study of Automated Systems from the Antiquity to the Renaissance.” Milano, 2010. PDF.
Asaro, Peter. “Hero (2003).” An attempt to make a Heron device work. Accessed February 21, 2013.
Drachmann, A G. “Hero of Alexandria.” Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 2008. Online.
Grillo, Francesco. “Hero of Alexandria’s Περὶ αὐτοματοποιητικῶν: The Collation of the ‘Worst’ Manuscripts.” Abstract.
McCourt, Finlay. “An Examination of the Mechanisms of Movement in Heron of Alexandria’s On Automaton-Making.” In Explorations in the History of Machines and Mechanisms: Proceedings of HMM2012, edited by Teun Koetsier and Marco Ceccarelli. Springer, 2012. DOI.
McKenzie, Judith. “Heron of Alexandria, Mechanikos.” In The Architecture of Alexandria and Egypt, C. 300 B.C. to A.D. 700, 323–25. Yale University Press, 2007.
Murphy, Susan. “Heron of Alexandria’s ‘On Automaton-Making.’” History of Technology 17 (1995): 1–44.
Sharkey, Noel. “The Programmable Robot of Ancient Greece.” New Scientist 195 (July 7, 2007): 2611.
Tybjerg, Karin. “Hero of Alexandria’s Mechanical Geometry.” Apeiron 37, no. 4 (January 2004). doi:10.1515/APEIRON.2004.37.4.29.
———. “Wonder-Making and Philosophical Wonder in Hero of Alexandria.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 34, no. 3 (2003): 443–66.
Vitrac, Bernard. “Faut-il réhabiliter Héron d’Alexandrie?” Les Actes du Congrès de l’Association Guillaume Budé l’homme et la Science à Montpellier, 2008, 01–04.

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