Early Engineers, Modern Methods: Five Who Left Their Mark

We don’t know the names of most of the engineers who created enduring works such as the network of aqueducts and roads that still delineate the borders of the Roman Empire or the huge barays and irrigation systems of Angkor Wat. A few early engineers and architects have left their names as well as their ideas, and in a few cases, the fundamentals they first used are still in practice today.

Imhotep: Egypt’s monuments are some of the best known, and its pyramids are the only one of the original Seven Wonders of the World still standing. While many of the builders’ and designers’ names are lost, one remains: Imhotep. The engineer behind the Pharaoh Djoser’s step pyramid built close to 5,000 years ago, he was also the Pharaoh’s chief physician, sculptor and palace administrator. He’s also perhaps the only engineer so renowned for his work that he was allowed to enter into god-hood like one of the pharaohs, eventually garnering his own group of worshipers in Memphis. Believed to be one of the first engineers to use columns in construction, he also worked out a method to enclose stone roofs using sand.

Archimedes of Syracuse: Born close to 2,400 years ago, Archimedes is one of the world’s most famous engineers of all time – and with good reason. His understanding of fluid displacement and invention of the compound pulley revolutionized the ancient world and still have applications today. The screw of Archimedes allowed builders to move water uphill, an innovation that changed everything from agriculture to city life. Any scientist or engineer who’s ever cried “Eureka!” after making a breakthrough also has Archimedes to thank; it was what he ran through the streets shouting after realizing the science behind his clepsydra’s displacement of his bathwater.

Hero of Alexandria: About 2,000 years ago, Hero changed the face of the ancient world with his ability to harness the wind. He also created the first steam-powered device, the aeolipile, although no one recognized the power behind his invention until nearly 1,800 years later when James Watt patented the steam engines that fueled the Industrial Revolution. Hero also used his genius as an inventor to create special effects at temples, developing a means to open doors effortlessly with hydraulics and dispense holy water after the donation of a coin – the world’s first vending machine.

Vitruvius: This Roman civil engineer and architect was a contemporary of Hero, but as a Roman soldier, he turned his attention more to practical engineering solutions than temple construction. An accomplished author, he published De Architectura, a ten-volume treatise on art, architecture and construction dedicated to Augustus Caesar. He improved significantly on surveying tools of the day and on drainage technology, borrowing and perfecting Archimedes’ screw design for creating more arable land for a burgeoning empire. While he didn’t invent the hypocaust system that heated Roman villas and public baths, he designed more efficient systems that are still models for modern construction.

Al-Jazari: Living in what is now Turkey in the late 1100s, Al-Jazari was one of the Muslim world’s most accomplished inventors, engineers and scholars. Coming from a long line of craftsmen, Al-Jazari had the hands-on experience to construct the marvels his imagination produced, including crank-shafts, camshafts, mechanical locks with tumblers, escapement mechanisms and a more efficient twin-cylinder pump. He also popularized the building of scale models to envision how his designs could work on a grander scale.

Modern engineers may not develop a cult following or be immortalized in Leonardo da Vinci’s artwork, but the ancient engineers who were can serve as inspiration today.

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