Could a STEAM Engine Be Built In Roman Times?

I have always wondered why the Roman world was so adverse to innovation: it seems that Roman technology was static indeed-almost ne innovation in 800 years of empire!
Yet, the Romans were remarkable civil engineers (roads, bridges, aqueducts,etc.-some of which still function). Could the Romans have built steam engines in AD 100? Take the state of RomaN metallurgy:
-the romans couldcast and finish bronze-which is strong enough to use in an engine
-the romans knew how to alloy lead and tin-so making bearings should have been possible
-the function of valaves and pistons were thoroughly understood
So, why didn’t some Roman genius invent the steam engine…just think where we would be today if the industrial revolution hadbegun in AD 100 instead of AD 1700!
Just think-nodark ages, nomiddle ages…we would probably be travelling to the stars by today!

They did. Or at least the Greeks did, though they considered it more of a toy.
Besides the availabilty of slave labour made the emergence of a labour multiplier, like Watt’s steam engine, less likely.

Yes, they could’ve. IIRC, there was an inricate clockwork mechanism that was created by some ancient greek guy pre-Roman empire.

But, what I heard was that there was very little economic incentive to invent labor saving devices due to the availability of slaves. There was a certain feeling that practical inventions were beneath the dignity of serious thinkers too. Or so i heard.

oooh spooky. :slight_smile:

Weren’t pistons only invented in the middle ages?

I do seem to remember, vaguely, that something actually was invented but that it was decided that it would wreak havoc with a slave based economy system. So the idea was discarded.
Can’t remember where I heard that tough.

This is a WAG but I don’t think metallurgy was good enough in Roman times to make a steam engine (boiler) that wouldn’t blow up on you. There are other materials necessary for steam engines as well such as gaskets that could form a durable seal and I don’t think Roman material sciences were good enough for that either.

That said I wonder why you don’t think the Roman’s excellent engineering skills weren’t worthy of being considered innovations. The Romans invented many things such as indoor plumbing. Romans weren’t good at inventing machines but it is easy to see why they weren’t compelled to try. They had a lot of slaves to do the grunt work instead.

Why not???

Good question. I said my answer was a WAG and reflecting on it I suppose they could have made a boiler. Certainly iron was known about by then (and had been for hundreds of years) so they were familiar with it.

I suspect the real answer lies more along the lines of my other point. With lots of slaves on hand to do the hard labor for the Romans no one ever felt pressured to invent a labor saving devices.

I just happened to be reading about this very subject in a book by Lyon Sprague de Camp. The Greeks came up with using water and pistons, and in Roman times an inventor named Heron, son of Ktesibios, of Alexandria, created a steam engine. Ktesibios was the Greek inventor who really started the use of waterpower and pistons - but he lived long before Heron, so it may be an honorific or a family name or just coincidence. His fame survived in some tales of magic and such into the Middle Ages, although sadly his techniques vanished with the toll of the years on books and texts.

In, fact, they felt an opposite pressure to try and keep employment high, too.

I am pretty sure the Romans would have had serious difficulty in makig numerous steam engines on a large scale. A lot of technologies dissappeared over the years, but metalwork never did, and it was not until the 19th century that quality metalwork in usable quantities became available. It would have been very hard to use such devices in many places.

I think you refer to the Antikythera Mechanism, a truly out-of-place artifact. It leads one to wonder even more about other sophisticated devices such as Archimedes’ machines and the well described polybolos.

I happen to have a copy of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel in front of me. He cites some reasons for the non-adoption of technology, including economic efficacy, “social value and prestige,” existing interests, and noticeable results. (pp. 247-249)

In the case of the Antikythera Mechanism, I’d suggest that a celestial navigation device–if that is in fact what it was–probably didn’t offer a significant advantage over the dead-reckoning abilities of Greek mariners. Even at trireme speeds, it’s difficult to stay out of sight of land for very long in the Mediterranean, and a good seaman could probably recover his bearing at a glance.

Diamond argues that technology often precedes application. If no practical application for an invention can be found, it’s likely to find its way to the dustbin of history… temporarily. A society such as ancient Greece or Rome, being so dependent upon and creative with the use of simple muscle power, may simply have perceived no need for sophisticated technolgy.

[Fixed link tags. – MEB]

I don’t see why it’s a matter of saving labor; I would think it’s a matter of power and locomotion. The logistics-minded Romans should have swooned over a steam-powered troop carrier, not to mention the weapons possibilities. I recall James Burke saying something to the effect of what Whack-a-Mole said — the metalurgy simply was not developed to withstand the heat generated by pistons over any significant duration. Thermal stresses caused by inefficient heating and cooling made all steam engines inefficient and impractical until hard enough steels with close enough tolerances could be made to seal a moderate vacuum. I’m going from memory here, but I believe that it was a man named Starrett whose contributions to tolerance measurement and refinement put everything over the top and made efficient steam engines possible.

I forgot to mention water pumps. The Romans, The Greeks, and everyone else could have made good use of steam powered pumps. In fact, I think that’s what the earliest steam engines were used for. I believe the Romans would have drooled over a steam powered ship as well.

Well, you first need a working engine before other people have new ideas what you could do with it.

Hardly likely that anyone looking at a drawing of a steam engine would have the idea pop in his head ‘Oh, that means the end to the age of the oar then.’ or ‘Oooh, tank warfare.’

Obviously there is more to things than just having a good idea.

In Chapter 7 of Greek Science After Aristotle (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1973), ,entitled Applied Mechanics and Technology, G.E.R. Lloyd discusses steam and inventions involving the new technology.

Quoting from page 106:

“A case that is often mentioned is the failure to exploit the power of steam. Hero, as we have noted, describes a ball that is made to rotate on pivots by steam escaping from bent tubes attached to it. Yet to claim, as has sometimes been done, that all the elements of a steam engine are already present, potentially, in this toy is absurd. The harnessing of steam deoended, among other things, on being able to cast large metal cylinders accurately and effect clearances between piston and cylinder fine enough to prevent the escape of steam as pressure builds up, and on devising an efficient method of converting rectilinear to rotative motion. The problems that had to be overcome to make an efficient steam engine were formidable and it was only after a long and complex process of development that an engine capable of more than 10 horsepower was finally produced in the late eighteenth century.”

Lloyd goes on to mention the nature of labor, consisting primarily of human and animal energy, as another reason why the ancients failed to exploit not only steam power, but also pneumatic, hydraulic and wind power. “So long as slaves were readily available, there was, so it is said, no incentive to devise artificial power sources or labor saving techniques of any sort.” (Lloyd, 107) He does add the caveat that “Yet again the importance of slavery should not be exaggerated. The ancient slave owner had at least two good reasons to want to reduce his dependence on slave labor if he possibly could, for slaves were quite expensive to feed and they could be difficult to control.” (Lloyd, 108)

Lloyd also metions the contempt with which ancient authors treated the mechanical arts as another “factor that inhibited technology in the ancient world” (Lloyd, 111) and warns against underestimating the conservatism of ancient technology. Innovation, while not necessarily frowned upon, was not exactly encouraged. An apprentice studying with a master of his craft would have been taught to follow the traditional procedure as closely as possible, thus ensuring the continued transmission of traditional technical skills. Although innovations were certainly made at different times in different fields, the general tendency regarding technology in the ancient world is one of constancy. Furthermore, Lloyd contrasts the disproportionate amount of attention and development of techniques given over to metal work with the relative paucity of those given to mining. “Wherever they could, in short, the ancients turned their crafts into arts: they did not, with few exceptions, attempt to convert them into industries.” (Lloyd, 111) By examining the application of technology in the ancient world, one sees that technologies were most often used for amusement as toys and trinkets which produced a “magical” effect. Thus we see the proliferatiopn of steam and pneumatic operated automata such as the automatic temple doors (described in Hero Pneumatics I.38) and the libation pourers (Hero I.12). Finally, Lloyd discusses the nature of the profit motibve in the ancient world and how in antiquity, as opposed to today, profits were seldom poured back into businesses as a capital investment but instead were used to acquire land, and consequently prestige.

Hope this helps. I also hope I didn’t misrepresent Lloyd’s arguments too egregiously.

It was those damn Roman numerals, I tell you.

You try figuring out the scale on an engineering diagram with ratios comprised of those suckers.

Let’s see now…LXIV, divided by VIII…

Ah screw it! Just let the slaves haul the water.