A photograph of a model of the aeolipile. Image Credit: modelengines.info

The Aeolipile: A Precursor to Modern-Day Rockets and Jet Engines From the 1st Century

The aeolipile, which was mentioned by Vitruvius around 30-15 BC and described by Heron of Alexandria in 1st-century Roman Egypt, is considered to be the first rudimentary steam engine on record.


The Aeolipile, also known as Hero’s engine, is a simple but groundbreaking device considered to be one of the earliest examples of a steam engine. It was invented by the Greek mathematician and engineer Hero of Alexandria around the first century AD, and it is an important precursor to the modern steam engine.

The Wonders of Ancient Engineering Unveiled

The World’s First Steam Engine

In a remarkable discovery that showcases the ingenuity of ancient engineering, the aeolipile, also known as Hero’s steam engine, stands as the earliest known example of a steam-powered device. Dating back to the first century AD, the aeolipile was the brainchild of Hero of Alexandria, a brilliant mathematician and engineer whose inventions laid the groundwork for modern steam engines. In this article, we delve into the history, design, and significance of Hero’s steam engine, exploring its lasting impact on the world of engineering.

The Genius of Hero of Alexandria

Hero or Heron of Alexandria, a prominent Greek mathematician, engineer, and inventor, was a man ahead of his time. As a leading figure in the world of ancient engineering, he made significant contributions to the fields of mathematics, physics, and mechanics. Among his most famous works are the treatises “Pneumatica” and “Automata,” which featured a range of mechanical devices, including the aeolipile. While cybernetics did not become a formalized field until the twentieth century, it is believed that Hero’s work, specifically his automated devices, constituted some of the earliest research on the subject.

Understanding the Aeolipile: How It Works

The Core Design Elements

The aeolipile, a simple yet groundbreaking device, consists of a hollow sphere with two opposing bent tubes or nozzles. The sphere is mounted on a stand, allowing it to rotate freely. The hollow interior of the sphere is filled with water, and a heat source is placed beneath it. As the water boils, steam is produced and expelled through the nozzles, creating a jet of steam that causes the sphere to rotate.


The Principle of Jet Propulsion

Hero’s steam engine operates on the principle of jet propulsion, a concept still used in modern-day rockets and jet engines. The aeolipile is an early example of harnessing the power of steam to create motion, demonstrating the potential of steam power long before it became a driving force in the Industrial Revolution.

Historical Context: A Glimpse into Ancient Engineering

While the aeolipile was not used for any practical applications during Hero’s time, it serves as a testament to the innovative thinking of ancient engineers. By employing steam power in a rudimentary form, the device highlights the advanced understanding of mechanics, thermodynamics, and the properties of steam that existed in the Hellenistic period.

The Legacy of Hero’s Steam Engine

Influence on Modern Steam Engines

The aeolipile’s design and principles laid the groundwork for the development of modern steam engines. Centuries later, inventors such as Thomas Savery, Thomas Newcomen, and James Watt would refine and expand upon Hero’s concept, eventually leading to the rise of steam power as a dominant force in the Industrial Revolution.

Inspiring Future Innovations

Hero’s steam engine has not only left its mark on history, but it also serves as a source of inspiration for modern engineers and inventors. The aeolipile demonstrates the power of innovative thinking and the potential to revolutionize industries by employing new technologies and concepts.


Celebrating the Ingenuity of the Aeolipile

The aeolipile, or Hero’s steam engine, is a remarkable testament to the ingenuity of ancient engineering. As the world’s first known steam-powered device, it showcases the advanced understanding of mechanics, thermodynamics, and the properties of steam that existed in the Hellenistic period. Though it was not utilized for practical purposes during its time, the aeolipile has left an indelible mark on the history of engineering and serves as a source of inspiration for modern-day innovations.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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