Industrial Revolutions: From Ctesibius to Mars

by Cort MacLean Johns Published on: 4th March 2023

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This article introduces the author’s book that demonstrates a long historical chronology of sophisticated technological advances from the Hellenistic Period through to Denis Papin’s first Steam Engine in 1690. A 2-millennium period of little progress in steam mechanics must first be considered before assuming that the First Industrial Revolution self-ignited between 1776 and 1780. Thus, the dichotomy of historical interpretation comes to the fore: If there is only one 18thcentury Industrial Revolution, not including or requiring any technological advances having taken place before 1776/1780. The Industrial Revolution, thus assumes, a Virgin Birther’s position.

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Traditionally, Arnold Toynbee and Nikolai Kondratieff have held that the Industrial Revolution began between 1776 and 1780, around the time of the invention of James Watt’s atmospheric Steam Engine. This revolution, supposedly arose suddenly, as a spontaneous ‘Big Bang’ event that created The Industrial Revolution, akin to a Virgin Birth without precedence.

There is an important historical reason for systematically tracing the historic roots of the 18th-century Industrial Revolution back to its potential origins in the Hellenistic Period. And by that, I mean not linking its roots to Antiquity with Toynbee’s Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, one sees no reason to identify those events occurring during this 2000-year-long link that would have prevented it from starting up (again) in 1690.

For instance, if Vitruvius’s “10 Books of Architecture” had been permanently lost, then they could never have been discovered by Poggio Broccolini at the Abbey Library of St.Gall in 1417. Accordingly, one agrees that this work necessarily had to survive as a necessary and decisive link for ‘passing the torch’ to and for the 18th century Industrial Revolution to have (re-)emerged.

The Virgin Birther’s concept of Industrial Revolution concept, by definition, insists that one must first disregard the Hellenistic Period’s technological advances, especially those described in Vitruvius’ description of Ctesibius’ Hydraulis and Water Pumps found in “De architectura” as well as the surviving graphics found in Hero of Alexandria’s “Pneumatica”.

This book demonstrates a long historical chronology of sophisticated technological advances from the Hellenistic Period through to Denis Papin’s first Steam Engine in 1690. A 2-millennium period of little progress in steam mechanics must first be considered before assuming that the First Industrial Revolution self-ignited between 1776 and 1780.

Thus, the dichotomy of historical interpretation comes to the fore: If there is only one 18th-century Industrial Revolution, not including or requiring any technological advances that have taken place before 1776/1780, then the traditionally held Industrial Revolution assumes a Virgin Birther position.

Is there only one Industrial Revolution in the sense of Thomas S. Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”? Or more whose continuum took root in the Hellenistic Period with its many fundamental technological inventions and radical innovations, which by surviving manuscripts allowed its rebirth. After this period’s top inventors, craftsmen, and fabrication facilities were largely silenced by a series of Roman military interventions, the emerging Hellenistic Period Industrial Revolution was put on hold to lay dormant until 1690.

The manuscripts of Vitruvius and Hero of Alexandria et al. surfaced once again in the Renaissance after centuries of quiet transcription to continue on its path of continued technological evolution. Thus, the apparent Lost Industrial Revolution of the Hellenistic Period, long after followed by Toynbee’s Industrial Revolution that took place after the Renaissance, has now been followed by several more distinct inventions, from a technological evolutionary point of view. These include Industrial Revolutions, such as the invention of the Transistor and Microprocessor, Solid State Fuel Rocket propulsion, Nano Materials, Super Computers, and the highly complex software required to navigate, land, explore and habitat the planet Mars. Increasingly, these Industrial Revolutions appear to be evolving in parallel with Kuhn’s concept of Scientific Revolutions, feeding off each other to quicken the pace of cutting-edge technological evolution.

This book focuses on the technical connection between Ctesibius’ invention of the Hydraulis and Water Pumps with the first Steam Pump by Denis Papin in 1690. If one demonstrates that the Steam Engine alone relied upon the initial design components of the Hydraulis (Steam Hydraulis), then Papin’s innovations to that design starting in 1690 form logical, progressive steps in the evolution (and not Revolution) of the Steam Engine’s Renaissance.

Nonetheless, it remains unclear whether the “Fire Altar” found on the silver and gold coins of the Zoroastrian, Persian-Mesopotamian, Sasanian Kings, Shapur I, 240- شا پ) 270) and Bahram I (یکم بهرام 271-274) (AD) were more than this, rather the images on their coins are easily compared with the major components of a Steam Hydraulis. Furthermore, the Sasanian Kings capital was Ctesiphon, Mesopotamia. Additionally, this Kingdom either ruled over the city of Alexandria Egypt or bordered with a long common nexus with the Roman Empire at a time in history when the Hydraulis was extensively used in Pannonia at Fort Aquincum and Dion Greece as attested to by Hydraulis artefacts unearthed in the 20th century.

The Sasanian coins reveal the importance of the so-called ‘Fire Altar’ over 150 years in the period from 224 until 379. The Fire Altar, as a holy Zoroastrian symbol, was likely used to mystify its worshipers. Therefore, one would identify any motivation for the Sasanians to reveal its internal functioning in a manner similar to the way Vitruvius described many, but not all, of the intimate details of its functioning. Openly explaining how the Hydraulis functioned would only negate and open to ridicule demystifying the magnum mysterium used to control or manipulate their fire-worshipping devotees’ respect or fear of its magical powers. Let’s leave it to future generations to validate or falsify my premises detailed here and other occurrences in the text. For the time being, let us assume that witnessing a Zoroastrian Fire Altar service or hearing the shrill tones of the Hydraulis just before wild animals were released to tear apart its victims. Being present at either event at that time may have been as spooky and frightening as witnessing a Haitian Voodoo ceremony today. One should note that on both coins, there is an attendant standing on each side of the Hydraulis and the Fire Altar. At the time of their minting, these 2 characters may have been explained as religious, high-level, functionaries to further a mystical illusion but in fact, may have been glorified Hydraulis attendants working its twin pneumatic pumps.

With reference to artefactual archaeological evidence and surviving manuscript documentation of the Hydraulis, I find that a new dialectical discussion might better analyse and address the underlying understanding of the Steam Engines’ longitudinal provenance, and therefore, requires a redefinition of the origins of more than one Industrial Revolution from the Hellenistic Period of Ctesibius to the current preparations for the exploration of Mars.

Persian, Zoroastrian Fire Worshipers (6th century B.C. to the 7th century A.D.) and the Sasanian Empire and its capital, Ctesiphon, Mesopotamia. The author claims that circumstantial evidence points to a hypothetical, mechanical connection between the Zoroastrian – Sassanian ‘Fire Altar’ of the late 4th century A.D. as well as the possible existence of a Steam Hydraulis during this period.

After the death of Alexander, the Great in 323 B.C., Ctesibius’ family could have conceivably emigrated from Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia, a possible source of the Ctesibius family’s name, arriving first at the Greek mainland, located around the Aegean Sea. The Ctesibius family’s relocation would have historically coincided with the return of Alexandrian General Ptolemy’s forces. We know that Ctesibius relocated later from the Aegean region to Alexandria Egypt where he was associated with the famous Library and Museum of Alexandria for many years under Ptolemy II and Ptolemy III.


“In a field of service to mankind, the explosive chamber and long-expansion pipe, devised by Ctesibius more than 2000 years ago, will provide the future means of transport through space beyond the stratosphere.” Sir James French, “From Ctesibius to the Moon” Blackwood’s Edinburg Magazine, October 1944 (October 1944), p276 

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner 

“The majority of mechanisms of Antiquity have not been preserved, but their legacy can be found in documents, artistic representations, and in the literature. In general, machine engineering was relevant in Antiquity, mainly in Greece and during the Roman Empire.” Paz, E. B. (2009). Mechanical Engineering in Antiquity. In S. E. CECCARELLI (Ed.), A Brief Illustrated History of Machines and Mechanisms (Vol. Chapter 3, pp. 43-64). Madrid, Spain: Springer, Dordrecht. doi: 

“That the commonly termed “Industrial Revolution” bears that name is due to the misperception of its short time for development. To demonstrate, we will delve back into the history of technology to explain our revisionist claim. The popular understanding of the Industrial Revolution relates to James Watt’s vacuum steam engine innovations used as the basis for the beginning of this period. However, its origins date back considerably further in time. We will provide a different account of its origins that takes us to the 3rd-century B.C. when Ctesibius of Alexandria invented the Hydraulis and conducted siphon experiments that advanced steam mechanics further with a broad array of devices created by Hero of Alexandria (10-70 A.D.)” Drachmann, A.G. (The mechanical technology of Greek and Roman antiquity: a study of literary sources), Ktesibius, Philon and Heron, 1963, 75-77. 

Taqī al-Dīn preceded Branca’s early Steam Turbine Experimentation 

A multidisciplinary Ottoman scholar named Taqī al-Dīn ibn Ma’rūf (1526-1585) carried out at least one type of experimental steam research in 1551. In 1551, Taqī al-Dīn invented an early steam turbine as a prime mover for a self-rotating spit. He introduced a labour-saving device for barbecuing meat, fish, and other culinary items over a steam-propelled rotating spit. Taqī al-Dīn wrote:

“Part Six: Making a spit which carries meat over the fire so that it will rotate by itself without the power of an animal. This device was made in several ways; one of these is to have at the end of the spit a wheel with vanes, and opposite the wheel place, a hollow pitcher made of copper with a closed head and full of water. Let the nozzle of the pitcher be opposite the vanes of the wheel. Kindle fire under the pitcher and steam will issue from its nozzle in a restricted form, and it will turn the vane wheel. When the pitcher becomes empty of water, bring close to it cold water in a basin and let the nozzle of the pitcher dip into the cold water. The heat will cause all the water in the basin to be attracted into the pitcher, and the [steam] will start rotating the vane wheel again.”5

A 9th-century Taqī al-Dīn al Fārābi, more than seven centuries earlier than the Taqī mentioned above, built a pipe organ for the first Holy Roman Emperor:

Emperor Charlemagne sent for an organ of Arabian manufacture, which he is said to have placed in a church at Aachen in 812. (This may have been Papin’s organ). The organ was sent by Caliph Hārūn al-Rashid and was made by an Arabian named Ja’far. H.G. Farmer, “Sources of Arabian Music”5, found a long account of this Arabian organ in a “manuscript” of Kashif al-humūm wa-l-kurab of the 14th century, preserved at Stamboul5. The organ is [still] called “al-mūsīqā” (the music), and its maker was Taqī al-Dīn al Fārābi. This man was brought to the notice of Caliph al-Ma’mūn (813-833)”6

One of the Conclusions

‘The Enlightenment’ and ‘The Age of Reason’ are relevant to include as part of economic waves and business cycle research. Historians and economists need to reconsider this hitherto omitted period of technological growth, referred to as the “Missing Wave” in a Kondratiefian sense of Long Wave Cycle theory. The events leading up to 1714 give us the most useful information as to how society prepares itself for unforeseen change. Certainly, historians can learn something from the long sequence of events that took place between the times of Ctesibius’ radical innovations (his compressor, pistons cylindrical pump housings, keyboard, and organ pipes, all combined into a pneumatic or hydraulic pipe organ qua fire extinguisher) and their incorporated design adaptation for a Calliope or a steam pump.

History is full of paradoxes. The Hydraulis was all but lost in the Lost Industrial Revolution’s whirl of activity signalling the coming Renaissance of the Industrial Revolution. The long period of technological doldrums was in no small part sustained on the back of Vitruvius’ musical/mechanical “De architectura” re-emergence from the Hellenistic Period’s mechanical genius. Ctesibius’ Hydraulis, is an instrument of mathematical and philosophical design destined to become a highly robust prime mover catapulting industry to heretofore-unknown heights of material productivity and general prosperity. The Hydraulis, the progenitor of the Steam Hydraulis, Calliope, and Papin’s Steam Engines of 1690 and 1707 established the most telling example of how technology and culture continue to form a “seamless web” and path for steam mechanics and many others derived from Ctesibius’ original Hydraulis’ parts and subassemblies which continue to evolve with new innovations.

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1. Sasanian Kings. Bahram (Wahram) I (271-274 AD). Silver Drachm (4.10 gm; 25 mm). Obverse, Bahram with Mithraic crown turning right groups of triple dots on the crown’s corymbose Fire altar with attendants, left attendant.

2. The debatable existence of Fire Altar Organs in Ancient Zoroastrian Temples of the Sassanian Empire with its capital in Ctesiphon questions the existence of a connection with Ctesibius’ Hydraulis continuing on to Papin’s Steam Engine. Thus, raising the question of two Industrial Revolutions evolving from the

3. Sasanian Kings. Bahram (Wahram) I (271-274 AD). Silver Drachm (4.10 gm; 25 mm). Obverse, Bahram with Mithraic crown turning right, groups of triple dots on the crown’s corymbose / Fire altar with attendants, left attendant with Bahram or Ardashir I’s crown, right attendant with Shapur I crown, Faravahar symbol to the right of flames. Sunrise 757.

4. Grenet, Franz, “Mithra ii. Iconography in Iran and Central Asia. Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2016, available at
“A coin issue from Susa dating probably from Artabanus II’s reign (ca. 128-124 BCE) presents a more convincing example of Mithra in the guise of Apollo, as the Parthian king is shown kneeling in front of a statue of the Greek god (here naked and holding his quiver), a scene which can be compared with Tiridates of Armenia’s address to Nero: “I am the descendant of Arsaces … and have come to thee, my god, to kneel before you as I do before Mithra”(Dio Cassius, 62.5.2).”Evidence of the connection between Nero and Mithran Fire Worshipping and Zoroaster.

5. Ayduz, S. (Taqi al-Din Ibn Ma’ruf: A Bio-Bibliographical Essay)
-Hill, D.R., (A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times) “The debt owed by Europe, in matters of technology, to Islam and other civilisations has never been fully acknowledged, and it is hoped that some of the material in this book will help to redress the balance.
– Ihsanolglu, E. (The History of the literature of natural and applied sciences during the Ottoman Period), 2006, Book I, 42-44.

6. Summer, W. L. (1981). The Organ: Its Evolution, Principles of Construction and Use. London, England, UK: MacDonald & Co. Retrieved 11 21, 2015

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