Skip to main content

The glory that was Greece

Raymond Oliver says looking at Ancient Greek inventions can help pupils understand today's technology

An Ancient Greek time-traveller, just pausing near the British Museum, would be perplexed by the traffic but would immediately recognise something familiar. The parade of Greek Ionic columns, the ones with curly capitals, and the carved frieze above would remind them of their distant home. The legacy of Greek architecture surrounds us in the design of our public buildings, religious shrines and even, improbably, our railway stations. Children will be surprised to find just how many key ideas in astronomy, physics, maths and architecture derive from the Greeks.

Who were the key players?

Starting with A for Archimedes (287-212BC) it would be possible, but burdensome, for children to assemble a lexicon of mini-biographies of Greek thinkers. Archimedes lived most of his life in Syracuse and was both a mathematician and scientist, a modern distinction that he would not have recognised. He also seems to have been a showman. One famous stunt allowed the King of Syracuse to move a massive ship just by pressing on a system of levers. Archimedes was well aware of the benefits to be derived by allowing his sponsor to take all the credit. Some modern parallels may occur to the children, or to you. When the hostile Roman fleet anchored in Syracuse harbour, Archimedes used some applied science to attack them. He arranged a series of metal mirrors, called specula, so that they would focus the Sun's rays on the wooden ships and ignite them. Two thousand years later, the philosopher Descartes and scientists such as Buffon were still speculating about the plausibility of this story. Did the mirror trick actually work? It probably did.

Choose just a few other Greek thinkers for children to research. For example, Euclid (c330-260BC), Pythagoras (c580-500BC) and Hero of Alexandria (c AD62).

Activity 1: mirrors and warfare

Use a range of flat and curved mirrors to focus the Sun's heat. Try saucepan lids and cooking foil wrapped around curved objects. Use the mirror to warm a small container of cold water or the bulb of a thermometer. Talk about the problem of producing enough heat to ignite a wooden fleet. For less warlike pupils, use a mirror to make a simple heliograph, a signalling device. All that is needed is a mirror and a way to cover and uncover it rapidly in order to send a coded message in flashes of sunlight. Heliographs were in use by the British army as late as the 19th century.

Ptolemy and astronomy

Ptolemy (c2nd-century AD) remains a mysterious figure, a Hellenised Egyptian working in the famous library of Alexandria. His major work built on the discoveries of earlier Greek astronomers, notably Hipparchus (c170-120BC). Hipparchus had concluded that the Sun circled the Earth every 365-and-a-quarter days, the length of an Earth year. Observation and theory were not in full agreement. Ptolemy developed the maths further to try to account for the discrepancies. His book, known as The Almagest, was published in the 2nd century AD and remained the key astronomical text for 1,000 years. The theory made predictions which could be checked, such as the dates of eclipses. It contained much good science but was fatally flawed since, as Copernicus showed, it was really the Earth and planets which orbited the Sun.

Ask the children to consider the evidence for both theories at a simple level. For example, if you sit in the garden all day what do you notice about the position of the Sun? It appears in the East, moves up across the sky and finally disappears below the western horizon at sunset. Surely Ptolemy was right then, the Earth (and your garden) stay still and the Sun goes round and round? It is important that children do not dismiss the early astronomers as incompetent: they knew what they were doing. Their theory continued to develop and lasted for more than 1,000 years before being replaced by the ideas of Copernicus. Ptolemy's theory was only sunk because it could not account for all the observed movements of the Sun and planets.

Activity 2: the Ptolemaic idea

Make a large disc, about one metre in diameter, and put an image of the Sun near the edge. Place the disc at the edge of a table with only the top half showing. Looking across the table, representing the Earth's surface, rotate the disc to bring the model Sun into view, across the sky and on to sunset. Is this what we see each day with the real Sun?

The full Ptolemaic System became ever more complex as it struggled to meet criticisms and included circles rotating about other circles (epicycles). It was still unable to match the observations made of the planets in the sky.

The Greeks had a pump for it

Moving water around was a major problem for all ancient societies. Water is a heavy material and large amounts of it need to be raised from rivers to irrigate fields. It was a problem that engaged the interest of many Greek thinkers. Archimedes takes the credit for the screw pump that could lift water in large quantities. A big metal spiral was enclosed in a cylinder, the lower end of which dipped into the river. As the spiral was turned, water was lifted to the top, over 200 litres per minute when one person was working the pump. Similar pumps are in use today, 2,000 years later.

Activity 3: pumping water

Ask the children to talk about, or even design, alternative ways to lift water. Consider everything from drinking straws to buckets and force pumps. The force pump was invented in the 3rd-century BC by Ctesibius and is still used by some fire-fighters today.

Raymond Oliver is a freelance writer and a former teacher

The Influence of the ancient Greeks is relevant to lessons with the following key stage objectives:History at KS2Unit 14: Who were the ancient Greeks?Unit 15: How do we use ancient Greek ideas today?ResourcesA History of Western Architecture by David Watkin. Third edition, Laurence King Publications (2000), pound;24.95The Story of Astronomy by Patrick Moore, Macdonald and Company (1973). Now out of printCambridge Illustrated History of Astronomy edited by Michael Hoskin, Cambridge University Press (1996), pound;25Great Inventions through History: Pre-1850 by by Gerald Messadie, Chambers (1991), pound;6.99The Greeks by Paul Cartledge, BBC Consumer Publishing (2001), pound;16.99


* Make a display of pictures of buildings that show the influence of Greek architecture, especially the use of decorated columns

* Research the Ptolemaic theory that describes the motion of the Sun and planets

* Greek astronomers noticed that the Earth cast a curved shadow on the Moon during a lunar eclipse. What does this indicate about the shape of the Earth?

* How did Eratosthenes of Cyrene (c276-194BC) measure the Earth's circumference and get it right to within 100 miles?


Capital: decorated top of a column

Frieze: horizontal broad band, sometimes including sculpture, and supported by the columns

Heliograph: signalling device that uses flashes of sunlight to send a message

Specula: polished metal concave mirrors

Focus: point at which light rays meet after reflection

Eclipse: a word derived from the Greek meaning forsaking or disappearing

Lunar eclipse: Earth's shadow intercepts the surface of the Moon

Solar eclipse: the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you