Cranes, water mills, central heating and showers. All invented by the Ancient Greeks.
These pieces of technology, all of them still used extensively and taken for granted, have their origins thousands of years ago. Ancient Greek civilisation is synonymous with innovation. Alongside these technological breakthroughs came huge strides in other areas. Contemporary urban planning owes a great debt to the initial frameworks laid down by the great Greek cities, and the practical use of levers and gears started in Greece thousands of years ago.
A list of the great thinkers in pretty much any field, from mathematics to medicine to drama, is likely to include at least a few Greek names from this period. Archimedes, Plato, Sophocles, Hippocrates, Pythagoras – the list is formidable. This a period associated with consistent inspiration and progress.
Fast forward to the present, and the Greek people have suffered a tragedy worthy of one of the Theban plays. The last six years have seen the Greek economy devastated.
The country was among the worst hit by the recession. Mass unemployment (currently at 26%) and a 40 billion euro drop in economic output have made Greece an unattractive prospect for investors. Harsh austerity measures triggered rioting, and mere survival was the main priority for much of the population.
Mass emigration over the past few years of the country’s young and educated seemed to point to a complete stagnation of the country’s new business sector- the unemployment rate for 15 to 24 year olds was 56% last year. However, there are reasons for optimism. An increasingly significant handful of new start ups and investment in the country are starting to make a dent on Greece’s economic woes. Adversity may just be kick starting a new era of innovation in Greece.
A history of innovation in adversity
The history of Ancient Greece is a tumultuous and fascinating one. Although the region has been settled since 10,000 BCE, we’re going to focus on the Classical and Hellenistic periods, which started around the fifth century BCE. This period was after the Greek ‘Dark Ages’. It was a time when literacy was present in the country, as well as many of the features traditionally associated with ‘Ancient Greek’ civilisation.
The Classical and Hellenistic period saw Ancient Greece with its greatest international influence, with colonies in France, Italy and Libya. Hellenistic culture reached as far afield as India and Afghanistan. It’s also the point when a great deal of Greece’s innovations took place- this is the time of Plato, Aristotle and Archimedes. We will look at both the logical reasoning practices that have come to define this epoch, and the propensity at creating technical solutions to detect and solve everyday problems.
In this period, many of the mathematical systems that are the basis for modern accounting, architecture and engineering were created. Indeed, the word mathematics is actually derived from a Greek word, μάθημα : máthēma.
Although much of their early work was based on Egyptian and Babylonian mathematics, new innovations soon began to take place.
A large part of Ancient Greek mathematics was formulated around geometry. Alongside Pythagoras’ and Thales’ theorems, two formulae that are still taught in schools today were the ‘Three Classical Problems’. These three problems are known as ‘squaring the circle’, ‘doubling the cube’ and ‘trisecting the angle’. They had a critical impact on future studies of geometry. The three problems were only proved impossible in the nineteenth century. The importance of them lies in the approaches and study they fostered.
The most fundamental contribution was the idea of proof and deductive reasoning, which dominate contemporary science and mathematics. The approach did not have a single creator, but was gradually developed over time by the studies and experiments of Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle. It relies on using a series of logical steps to prove or disprove an initial idea.
There were an abundance of inventions in Ancient Greece, but by focusing on just two of them, we will be able to highlight the problem solving ability of this civilisation. Although completely different to modern examples, the first alarm clock was created in Greece around 250 BCE by Ctesibus. The system was a form of water clock, where the regular dripping of water measured time. The alarm function occurred when a lever was switched to create a whistling sound.
The water alarm clock
Ctesibus’ water alarm clock was an ingenious solution to a universal problem. It may seem simple, but how did you wake yourself up this morning? It’s more than likely that you used an alarm clock of some sort, even if it was the one on your mobile phone. The best inventions are the ones where we cannot imagine a world without them, because they are so ingrained into our existence we barely consider them until we have to function without.
The origins of the water mill are also found in Ancient Greece. The earliest evidence of water driven mills can be found on the island of Perachora. In the third century BCE technical treatises written by Philo of Byzantium describe the use and function of water wheels, and there are wall paintings in Ptolemaic Egypt that show the full development and usage of sakia gears.
These are rudimentary when compared to modern devices, but like the alarm clock, Ancient Greeks planted the seed which subsequent societies have developed and refined. These water mills show an understanding of the potential to use the natural world as a source for energy production, and as a means to maximise the productivity of a work force. These are two ideas that were pivotal to the industrialisation of the nineteenth century and the creation of the modern world.
It’s important to consider the context of this period of frequent innovation and invention. On the one hand it was the time of high culture in Greece. Developments in urban planning and architecture led to the creation of grandiose cities and spectacular monuments, but it was far from a time of utopian bliss. It witnessed frequent civil war and conflict between the great city states of Athens and Sparta, a long and devastating war with Persia, and the upheaval and uncertainty of Alexander the Greats’ conquests.
What stands out is that despite these obstacles, the Ancient Greeks still contributed so many innovations that are still a fundamental part of our culture today. Indeed, it could be argued that rather than innovation happening despite this adversity, the two are actually related, Greek civilisation needed to progress and expand in order to survive the harsh world.
Signs of Greece beating adversity again
Signs are appearing that contemporary Greece is making small steps to recovery, by resorting back to the kinds of technological innovation that defined their ancient history. In the last few years a host of start-up companies have been founded in Greece, and international investors are starting to take notice. Earlier this year Workable, a start up that offers hiring solutions for businesses, announced a $1.5 million funding round, led by Greylock IL, one of the world’s oldest and biggest venture capital firms.
Just as you were most probably woken up by an alarm clock this morning, you probably also have a Smartphone. The origins of both of these devices are Greek. Research from the company Helic, started by a pair of research students in Athens, led to the development of software tools that are used to design wireless software chips. These chips are vital for connecting Smartphones to Wi-fi, FM Radio and various GPS services. The company is expanding despite the Greek recession, serving the likes of Sony and Intel.
Taxibeat is a new App that helps consumers chose the nearest taxi based on customer defied parameters, for example free wi-fi, baby seats or the quality of the taxi. After selecting a taxi the app automatically locates you so the driver knows where to go. The app has already been exported outside of Greece, to Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Paris. The company secured $4 million in funding from the European Hummingbird Ventures fund. These are just two exciting start ups in Greece, even more can be found here.
Greece is becoming increasingly hospitable for new and ambitious start up companies. Corallia, the Hellenic Technology Clusters Initiative, is working to create an environment where new companies can flourish. It is the first initiative of its kind in Greece, providing co-working facilities and a basic infrastructure to encourage direct contact between like minded people – a further means to expand Greece’s technology boom.
Analysis by the World Bank’s Doing Business platform shows Greece is becoming an increasingly attractive place to start a new company. The country’s overall ‘Doing Business’ ranking has improved by an impressive seventeen places since 2013, with the biggest improvement coming in the ‘Ease of Starting a New Business’ table, where Greece has moved up a massive 111 places. These statistics are the culmination of government reforms to stimulate start up business, and they seem to be working.
At present Greek start ups employ around 1,500 people in a broad range of businesses. There were 144 new start ups in 2013, compared to 65 in the previous year. These are signs for encouragement, but the reality is of course that these new jobs are only a small dent for a country with over a quarter of its adult population jobless.
The main cause for optimism in Greece is the potential that seems to be brewing. The triumph for Ancient Greece was the ability to grow and innovate through adverse circumstances, ultimately creating a broad, international cultural influence. History could be repeating itself. Start-up businesses are attracting international interest, as new ideas and innovations are released. Investors are increasingly looking at Greece as the likely origin of the next ‘world-beater’, the next product that will become an international storm. There is every chance that this growing technological industry could be the basis for a more prosperous future, as Greeks repeat the drive for technological and scientific innovations from their ancient past.
Point of interest: Corallia Cluster Initiative, Athens, Greece.
External links & References
- Corallia : English version
- Corallia CLusters Initiative @ Europa.eu
- The Cube: Co-working space in Athens
- Impact Hub Athens
Water Alarm Clock Image by: “AGMA Clepsydre” by Marsyas – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons