The Aeolipile was a simple mechanical device that generated kinetic energy from steam. Its invention is attributed to the Hero of Alexandria in the 1st century AD.

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Source: Aeolipile

With the benefit of hindsight, the leap from that machine to using kinetic energy to generate motion or operate machinery seems logical, yet as far as I can tell it wasn't made until the 17th century when steam power would first be used to do meaningful work.

What technological (and if present, cultural) factors prevented further growth in the use of steam power in 1st century Roman Egypt, or any other region during classical antiquity?

  • There were water-powered machines at the time, possibly they though water power is more useful. The 17th century steam engine has much greater force.
    – Anixx
    Feb 5, 2017 at 20:59
  • I have edited this question to focus it on what was lacking in 1st century Greece for this invention to trigger a broader application of steam power. I hope it has moved away from counterfactual towards "what else is needed to take advantage of this invention that wasn't there" ... Feb 8, 2017 at 16:28
  • 1
    Could the simple fact of lack of appropriate clothing for generating (and using steam) been an issue? (I know toga's weren't the only clothing types, but unfortunately when discussing ancient-greece and roman eras, that's what I think of. And working with steam in a toga doesn't seem particularly conducive to practicality.
    – CGCampbell
    Feb 10, 2017 at 16:34
  • @CGCampbell Irrelevant. Romans didn't work in togas, and most of the heavy lifting was done by slaves, who would have worn tunics, at most, or been semi-naked for really rough work!
    – TheHonRose
    Feb 11, 2017 at 19:49
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    To start with, Alexandria is in Egypt, not Greece. (Though there was a lot of Greek influence due to Alexander's conquests &c.) And by the 1st century, it was part of the Roman Empire.
    – jamesqf
    Nov 12, 2018 at 18:24

7 Answers 7


Edit: the original question title was about Greece, which is what I've tried to answer below.

Because it wasn't Steam Engine Time.

It didn't coincide with an obvious need for locomotion, and the capability to implement it on a wide scale. For example, there was little steel and not much coal. There were lots of slaves to do the heavy lifting... I think Plato even speculated that slavery couldn't be eliminated until people had automatons (robots/machines) to do the work for them, which we do. Preindustrial England had plentiful cheap labour, but no slaves, and at some point in every line of work developing automata became cheaper than paying out more wages.

Trade was mostly conducted by sailing ships, which was as fast as the earliest steam engines. Consider that in England, steam railways displaced canals. There was a need to move things overland, and that was the need that canals fulfilled.

There was no equivalent 'pre railway' in ancient Greece, because their economy didn't demand it. So there was nothing that needed to be replaced.

  • 12
    Another factor here is fuel. Assuming you have a steam engine, but don't know about coal or petroleum, and have already largely deforested Greece to refine silver (and don't have a heck of a lot of trees in Egypt &c), what do you use to fuel your engine? Whereas Britain had lots of coal in the mines where the first steam engines were used.
    – jamesqf
    Feb 4, 2017 at 18:47
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    There was already a move to industrialisation in Britain before steam power accelerated it. The first big mills were built in river valleys to use water power
    – user13123
    Feb 4, 2017 at 23:23

From the standpoint of the ancient Greeks, the aeolipile is a technological dead end. As an engine in its own right, it's useless for more than toys/temple wonders: it produces negligible torque, and does so in a horribly inefficient manner -- the slave you've got stoking the fire to run your aeolipile-powered device would be far more productive if he let the fire go out and did the task himself.

As a predecessor to other steam technologies, it's also a dead end. There's no obvious transition from it to the steam piston, which the Greeks might have been able to build. If you turn the aeolipile inside-out, you get the steam turbine, but making turbines efficient enough to be worth using requires a knowledge of metallurgy, precision machining, and aerodynamics far beyond what the ancient Greeks had.

  • 1
    Good point. Would be interesting to know when the aeoliphile became widely known, and if that was before or after steam engine time.
    – Ne Mo
    Feb 5, 2017 at 21:15

This question seems to imply that the invention of steam power (in any form) is an automatic precursor to an industrial revolution. I don't believe that this is the case.

The Industrial Revolution in Europe (and more specifically in Britain) was the result of a number of a number of technological and economic factors that came together in that place and at that time.

Steam power was, in itself, not a cause of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution actually got started with water power (in the form of water wheels). Steam power simply provided a more flexible form of power and, as the technology progressed, a portable form of power.

In fact, the Industrial revolution and steam power technology were essentially complementary. Improvements in mechanical technology and tooling allowed better, more efficient steam engines which in turn powered larger and more powerful tools (in increasing numbers), etc.

  • 3
    I think this is a very good insight -- water power led people to understand that some source of power besides human/animal muscle could be used and created a framework for it. Then other forms of power were substituted. Steam really captured the popular imagination -- it was somewhat mysterious compared to wind and water. It could be argued that steam set the stage then for electricity, leading to all sorts of things, I think all would agree. But interestingly, electricity was not the only way power was initially transmitted. Pneumatic power was used in private homes at one point iirc.
    – Jeff
    Feb 11, 2017 at 9:28
  • Pneumatic power in homes? Tell me more!
    – Ne Mo
    Feb 21, 2017 at 13:25
  • I'm not sure it was used in homes but several of Britain's cities had a hydraulic power network including London. Feb 21, 2017 at 17:51

I think this is analogous to why guns did not immediately displace bow and arrow. The early gun was not a superior practical weapon in many respects for centuries. In fact, steam engines would not be as useful as sails or horses until late 18th or early 19th centuries. If someone in ancient times had tried to replace muscle or wind power with steam he would have faced technical problems in metallurgy that would not be solved for a long time even if the understanding of how more efficient use of steam had been achieved then which it would not be for centuries also.


As answer by Mark says, it is useless. Because it is not the same as the 17th century steam engine, which can exert much greater force.

At the time Greeks already had water-powered machines, and maybe wind-powered as well. Such machines do not need fire and fuel. You do not have to go to forest to cut logs. And they were much more powerful. So this kind of engine is simply useless for them.

  • Yes: They had no reason to believe that it would have any advantage over other forms of power. That would have taken quite an imagination to suggest that it could move a ship faster than oarsmen. Maybe if someone had seen gunpowder it would have made them consider that things more powerful than aggregate muscle existed.
    – Jeff
    Feb 7, 2017 at 15:17

In English industrialisation two economic drives brought steam power to the fore:

  • the impossibility of further extraction without mechanical power, for example, the difficulty in pumping mine sumps by man and animal force. That the forces of production were fettering reproduction of capital in an expanded form. (Landes The Unbound Prometheus; Marx Capital 1 “The hand-mill…”)

  • the difficulty in emiserating labourers without machine discipline, for example, frame knitters failed to intensify production until undercut by teenage girls enslaved to Jennies. That the relations of production were fettering the expanded reproduction of capital. (Thomspon, Making of the English Working class; Hammond & Hammond, Town Labourer; Marx Capital 1 33 circa, “Mr. Peel”).

The accumulation of social property in the Greek cities was not driven by capital accumulation, wage labour, the value form, a generalised market in commodities including wage labour. Problems could be solved by extensification within existing techniques of mining or invading a new neighbour; problems could be solved by intensification of patronage of the non-equestrians or harshening latifundia production.

Within all the other limits posed regarding access to the material techniques of steam pistons as motive force, there were no drivers in the forces or relations of production for non-organic motive force.

It wasn’t needing steam engine time yet.


I believe there were some niche uses. Moving curtains, opening temple doors. Last use I know of, and you may not agree with me, was in Leonardo da Vinci's plans, whose aerial screw was to be powered by aeloplie.

Let there be pipe,

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and steam

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I could be wrong on this, however the drawings are made by the best artist yet, author of Mona Lisa and the man who was hired by both French king and Roman Pope to do some drawings.

Since the aeliopile is closely related to rocket engines and these are more efficient in comparisson to, say, a gas engine, the question really should have been "Is the time ready for Heron's engine yet?"

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