Some sources on the Internet state that the steam engine was known in ancient Egypt, although it wasn't used very widely.

Is it true?

If the answer is yes, it was known, or at least suspected, why wasn't it used more widely? For example, it could have helped to build more and bigger pyramids.

  • $\begingroup$ I suspect you are alluding to the Aeolipile described by Hero of Alexandria : "a Greek mathematician and engineer who was active in his native city of Alexandria, Roman Egypt" ca.10 – ca.70 AD, not exactly "ancient Egypt". See also History of the steam engine. $\endgroup$ Feb 19, 2015 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ @MauroALLEGRANZA Actually, some of my sources say some temple door was opened/closed by the ancient Egyptians by a steam machine, and it was partially a liturgical thing, but it is highly unclear (some historical books don't mention any similar). $\endgroup$
    – peterh
    Feb 19, 2015 at 16:08
  • $\begingroup$ No steam engine was not known in "Ancient Egypt". $\endgroup$ Feb 19, 2015 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ Hero, the scientist, almost made it. He had all the nescessary parts but never seemed to figure out how $\endgroup$ Feb 19, 2015 at 23:43
  • $\begingroup$ The place where Hero worked is usually not called "Ancient Egypt". It is called "Ptolemaic Alexandria". At the time of Hero, Ancient Egypt was already very ancient:-) $\endgroup$ Feb 20, 2015 at 2:55

2 Answers 2


Like Mauro I suspect that your sources make a conflation. The earliest surviving description of a steam engine is in Pneumatica by Heron (or Hero) of Alexandria, who calls it aeolipile after the Greek god of air. One of the described applications is to automated opening of temple doors by lighting a fire on the altar. Alexandria is in Egypt, which is famous for its priests, so with some creativity we get an ancient Egyptian wonder.

Russo makes a case in Forgotten Revolution based on analysis of Heron's text and other sources that the invention actually goes back to Ctesibius of Alexandria (3rd century BC), some other devices described by Heron are known to be his. But that is still Hellenistic Egypt, not ancient. The only earlier mention of a steam powered device that I know of is a flying pigeon of Archytas of Tarentum (4th century BC), but its credibility is low since it is only mentioned in a collection of science related folk tales by Aulus Gellius, who lived over five centuries after Archytas. Still, Archytas is known as a brilliant mechanic from other sources, so it's possible.

As to why steam engines weren't used more widely in antiquity the reason is that they were too weak. Toys and contraptions described by Heron are just about all they could power. Only in 1663 John Somerset invented upgrades (based on condensing steam) that allow for "industrial grade" engines. Why wasn't it done in antiquity? One reason is that Hellenistic science had a very narrow window to develop, about two centuries between Alexandrian and Roman conquests. Around 150 BC scientists were chased away from Alexandria, and when better times returned much of the tradition was lost. On top of that during the Imperial period that followed the culture appreciated "wonders" rather than the science that produced them, and toys and contraptions were just right for that. Again, Forgotten Revolution is a good reference for this period.

  • $\begingroup$ I am not a native English speaker, so please explain me: is steam turbine is a special kind of "steam engine"? Hero has a description of a toy steam turbine. The Brits in 18 century invented a completely different steam engine. The turbine was invented again in the end of 19 cenruty. $\endgroup$ Feb 19, 2015 at 21:52
  • $\begingroup$ What is the source of the statement that "scientists were chased away in 150 BC"? I know they were chased away in 370 AD. (And in the 200+ AD there were still some outstanding scientists in Alexandria). $\endgroup$ Feb 19, 2015 at 21:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexandre Eremenko Yes, in loose usage adopted by Wikipedia steam engine is anything that "performs mechanical work using steam as its working fluid". In 145 BC Euergetes II "expelled all intellectuals: philologists, philosophers, professors of geometry, musicians, painters, schoolteachers, physicians and others" from Alexandria. Russo discusses it in detail, Wikipedia has a blurb en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Feb 19, 2015 at 22:29
  • $\begingroup$ Apparently they later came back. Some of the most important developments in mathematics and astronomy happened in Alexandria in 2-3 centuries AD. $\endgroup$ Feb 20, 2015 at 2:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Conifold: "the rumors about expulsion of all intellectuals in 145" are probably exaggerated. According to Ptolemy, Hipparchus and others made observations in Alexandria in 146, 135 and 128 BC. So probably expulsion was incomplete and/or not permanent. $\endgroup$ Feb 21, 2015 at 5:37

To answer the "why" part of your question: In Greek and Roman antiquity there was no economic incentive to produce labour-saving devices due to the ready availability of slave labour. The technological advances were mainly in the field of military technology (think of Archimedes and his burning mirrors).


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