Ancient Greek Geeks Got It Right

Mark Schiefsky has spent years studying ancient Greek manuscripts, trying to figure out how some of the earliest geeks produced mechanical devices that were at least as important to them as computers are to us.

Schiefsky is a professor of classics at Harvard University and an expert on Greek antiquities, and he is puzzled by the fact that as early as the fifth century B.C., the marketplace in Athens had pretty sophisticated devices for weighing merchandise based on the leverage that can result from an uneven balance bar.

He's puzzled, because the theory of levers wasn't developed until Archimedes came onto the scene in the third century B.C., more than 100 years later.

"It seems clear that there were these balances with unequal arms around before Archimedes," said Schiefsky, one of several scholars who are studying ancient Greek manuscripts at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

That flies in the face of the way science and technology work today.

First, there is mathematics, the science of dealing with the measurement, properties and relationships of quantities, and then there is theory, a general principle helping to explain and predict natural phenomena. With both of those tools in hand, experimenters can then go forth and develop the tools to do the work.

But the ancient Greeks got it backward. With very little in the way of mathematics, and even less in science theory, they came up with some really clever gizmos.

"When you say balance, everybody thinks you mean something like the scales of justice with two equal arms and the scale pans on each side," Schiefsky said in an interview. "I was surprised to learn that there were also balances with unequal arms."

The balances used by the ancient Greeks looked sort of like an old-fashioned teeter-totter, with the balance point, or fulcrum, located off-center. That allowed them to weigh, or move, a heavy load with a lighter weight.

"How can you move a 100-pound weight with 10 pounds?" Schiefsky asked. "You can do it if you put the 100-pound weight 10 times closer to the fulcrum."

"Or if you have a very heavy piece of meat you want to weigh, you can do it with a fairly small counterweight," Schiefsky said.

The key is to use the fulcrum as a leverage point, something just about everybody understands today. But here's the problem: Some of these devices were built at least a century before Archimedes came along to develop the law of the lever, which should have been the foundation for devices that had already been built.

Not only did the ancients build these things before they presumably knew what they were doing, but they also figured out how to use them to cheat their neighbors. Some of the old texts indicate that there was a little larceny in the marketplace, although it's doubtful that the ancient Greeks invented that all-too-common human trait.

"They could fiddle around with the measurements," Schiefsky said. "You could rig the balance" by shifting the fulcrum ever so slightly, or shaving an ounce off the counterweight, "so you don't give away as much stuff as the person thinks he is getting."

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