Provided that for some irrelevant reason, the people understand the principles behind these engines. Would they be able to construct them with the available technology?

EDIT: I do not mean an Aeolipile, but a steam engine resembling that of James Watt

  • $\begingroup$ So you need a... Hero(n). The guy (supposedly) behind Aeolipile build also steam powered doors in Alexandria. And they worked. The question is "why would they need to use them apart from fun novelty?" $\endgroup$ Jan 30, 2017 at 10:53
  • $\begingroup$ highly related worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/68672/… $\endgroup$
    – rschpdr
    Jan 30, 2017 at 11:09
  • $\begingroup$ If they could build a computer (search for Antikythera mechanism), i'm pretty sure they could build a steam engine. $\endgroup$
    – nijineko
    Jan 30, 2017 at 20:57

4 Answers 4


Yes they can, the metallurgical and smithing techniques required to create steam engine has been achieved(bronze age), however you need to do it in time of Pythagoras or other great mathematicians as it is the time where proper measurements was universal.

The hole in this answer would be who had the eureka moment and thought of this(Other is the probability of romans early application of gunpowder to warfare and economy) Perhaps the power of volcano(Etna or Vesuvius) shed light to how powerful steam can be?

And no its not a powerful steam engine but it can still probably be used to power looms or smelter house

  • $\begingroup$ I don't understand how proper measurement would be needed to construct a steam engine. To mass produce them, perhaps, but to make them one-by-one, each one custom and subtly unique? I imagine they could be made by skilled artisans the same way they made large and intricate temples and other buildings. $\endgroup$
    – R.M.
    Jan 31, 2017 at 23:11
  • $\begingroup$ @R.M. you cant make a container basing only on what you know, a design has to be made much like any crafts that has been done by hands. And dealing with something like the power of volcano at that time requires certain precision the same level of making the temples of gods, since in their minds probably that they are emulating the power of god or at least a part of it $\endgroup$ Feb 1, 2017 at 11:21

While standing by my previous answer of "yes" on this problem, you're more likely to see a version of Newcomen's engine than Watt's.

They already understood the principles, but apparently used expanding air rather than steam to "magically" open temple doors when the fire was lit. The explanation of the machines can be seen in Hero's Pneumatica. Whether any of these machines were built or whether they were entirely theoretical I couldn't say, but it's clear that they understood that water expanded significantly when boiled and that expanding gasses could be used to do work.

The reason it wasn't done could be simply down to the fact that Hero had no interest in manual labour, as that sort of thing was done by slaves. He seems to have had reasonable interest in putting out fires, simulating miracles and automatons.


Not really ...

They could have built some sort of bronze contraption, filled parts of it with water, and lit a fire underneath. The result would be a lot of leaking hot water, a lot of leaking hot steam, and perhaps a little bit of movement of the engine.

Coming up with boilers that do not explode, cylinders that do not leak, connecting rods that do not break, and bearings that do not seize up requires more advanced technology. Sure, the ancient Greeks could be taught to do all this, but then it wouldn't be the technology of ancient Greece any more.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ First boilers we made from copper and lead - quite soft metals. How they held the pressure? There weren't any pressure! Those were atmospheric engines with almost zero excess pressure. First steam engines didn't have bearings, because they weren't rotative. And at least Romans knew how to make "cylinders that do not leak" - cause they made bronze pumps for ships and firefighters. $\endgroup$
    – Vashu
    Aug 14, 2017 at 1:53

I don't believe for a moment that the principles behind any process have to be understood. Did an understanding of photosynthesis precede growing crops? I've no doubt that to advance/improve the state of the art, understanding helps enormously, but even then it's not required (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edisonian_approach). We need to be careful here. The first TV was displayed in 1907 (static images) and was fully feasible by 1925 and in the next 10 years, the technology grew exponentially. Why? Well, that's a subject for historians, but "critical mass" is part of it. It's not enough that a technology is known to be possible, nor even has been built, what is required is that there is a need for it AND that the benefits out weigh the costs. For the TV, it was the increasing availability of electronic vacuum tubes. In the case of a bronze age steam engine, the costs of a "one off" would be enormous. And if the technology was changed so that, say bronze machines were ubiquitous, then it wouldn't be Ancient Greece anymore. Anyway, to answer your question: Yes, given sufficient money (or power), someone who knew how could have had one built. You might be able to say the same thing about a TV. I'd guess with nearly unlimited resources, you could have the many needed technological advances achieved in 50 years or so. But this is a chicken and egg problem. If someone knew enough, then there would have been more advanced technologies: knowledge doesn't happen in a vacuum. I doubt if today, one person exists who would be able to construct a TV using artisans with only bronze age technical understanding. A steam engine would, I think, be easier; requiring only mechanical engineering, industrial engineering and metallurgical (and chemical) knowledge.

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    $\begingroup$ The question assumes that the knowledge exists regardless of reason (time-travel maybe?). If you want to discuss that then feel free to post a comment. As it stands this is not an answer. $\endgroup$ Jan 30, 2017 at 3:23
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Tech may not have to be understood, but it does have to be known. I agree with @Miguel that this is not an answer because it doesn't suggest whether or not the tech involved was known in Ancient Greece. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Jan 30, 2017 at 5:00
  • $\begingroup$ What kind of technology do you think the ancient greeks were missing to enable them to build a steam engine? I mean, James Watt started working on his engine in 1765. This was (near) the very beginning of the industrial revolution. Rifles were still handmade at the time. What kind of advanced technology do you think he had that the greeks didn't? $\endgroup$ Oct 27, 2022 at 19:42

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