The Industrial Revolution occured in 18th century Britain following the period of enlightenment when the lost works of Greek and Roman writers were rediscovered.  The grand ideas drawn from these discoveries such as the scientific method were responsible for a rapid expansion in knowledge and understanding that led to inventions that would change the world forever.

But what if an industrial revolution occurred during the high point of Greek enlightenment?  What kind of world would we be living in now if steam power was developed and utilised in 100BC? It is an interesting and attractive alternative history, one where humanity is driven forward in the quest for knowledge and reason rather than conquest and power.  It may seem counterfactual but in reality it is not that far fetched.

The Greek enlightenment

The Greek schools of philosophy were a melting pot of ideas.  Pure philosophy had led to ideas such as the substance of the universe consisting of atoms, millennia before we were able to prove this fact to be true.  These great schools of learning drew wise men from all over the ancient world to congregate in places like Perganom and Alexandria.  There the powerful Hellenistic kings could patronise the development of ideas and build great libraries of knowledge. These pools of knowledge were the perfect breeding ground for the fermentation and exchange of ideas.  An ancient enlightenment that is the prerequisite of any industrial revolution.

Surely the most important factor in any industrial revolution is the understanding of mechanics and propulsion?  These things were already being demonstrated in antiquity.  The water mill was being used to grind flower on an industrial scale, the developments in hydropower led to a greater understanding of mechanics, toothed gearing and drives.  The earliest evidence of a water-driven wheel appears in the technical treatises Pneumatica and Parasceuastica of the Greek engineer Philo of Byzantium in the 3rd century BC.  These advances in mill power and gearing were not isolated to milling grain.  Hydro power was utilised for kneading dough, crushing rock and even a fuling machine.

It is not to say that understanding hydro power alone is enough to merit an ancient industrial revolution.  Even though the advent of this technology slowly spread across the hellenized world, most people still ground their grain in a hand held rotary quern.  The understanding of mechanics and toothed gearing garnered from hydropower led to the development of devices millennia before their time.

Ancient Computers

The Antikythera Mechanism was found in a shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901.  It is a well known complex clockwork astronomical computer – not the kind of object usually associated with antiquity.  It was a clockwork mechanical box containing 37 toothed gearing mechanisms used to predict movements of the Moon and the Sun through the zodiac, to predict eclipses and even to model the irregular orbit of the moon.  The mechanical understanding required to devise such an object shows that the knowledge of mechanics and gearing in antiquity far surpasses what we thought.  Mechanical precision on this scale was not rediscovered until the 14th century.  The clockwork box was probably bound for Rome after being looted from Asia minor as Rome brutally subjugated and taxed Anatolia, emptying the land of wealth and placing eye watering taxes on the population.

It is clear they understood hydropower and complex gearing but there is one more crucial component that made the industrial revolution possible.  Propulsion!  In particular steam power.  Hero of Alexandria was a mathematician and inventor of the 1st century AD.  He was famed for demonstrating the first steam engine.  The aeolpile was a crude steam powered device that worked by heating up water in a vessel until steam was released rotating a device above the vessel. This device had little practical use.  It was more of a scientific demonstration, but from this we can see that the basic components and understanding required for the industrial revolution existed way back in antiquity.


Complex mechanics, steam propulsion, toothed gearing and an ancient enlightenment. All the prerequisite factors of an industrial revolution were there in antiquity, so why didn’t it happen? While hydro power had been developed specifically for industrial use most of the other inventions of the time were adapted to create unbelievable phenomenon at Greek temples. Various complex devices were used to hoodwink worshipers into believing that temples doors opened by themselves, moving automaton statues poured libations and thunder sounded from the rooftops. All this mechanical wizardry would have seemed like the work of the gods to simple Temple worshipers awestruck by beguiling divine intervention.

Unfortunately the mechanical inventions of antiquity didn’t free the plebs of the burden of arduous labour, instead it was used to dupe them into remaining God fearing and pious. Archimedes of Syracuse used his power of invention to develop war machines like the giant claw used to rip Roman ships from the sea, the famous death ray and advances in catapult engineering. The Romans coveted the mind of Archimedes and ordered him captured but he was killed in the confusion during the brutal siege of Syracuse.

The ancient industrial revolution never occurred, even though many of the prerequisite components and technologies existed and were understood and utilised. Necessity is the mother of invention, With an abundance of slave labour available and private ownership of land still relatively high the need for industrial production innovation never materialized. The great minds of the Hellenistic enlightenment were extinguished by the March of Rome and the rise of Christianity. The libraries were burned and the knowledge was lost to time. It would take over a millennia for mankind to attain this level of technology once again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s