Hero of Alexandria and his Magical Jugs

Hero of Alexandria and his Magical Jugs

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The most famous and successful of the scientists and engineers from the 1 st century was Hero (Heron) of Alexandria, who was conjuring up all kinds of weird and wonderful mechanical gadgets and steam engines, that both entertained the royalty and dumfounded the faithful in the temples. The ancestry of Hero is unknown. He came from Alexandria in Egypt, but Carl Boyer, a historian of science and mathematics, has said that his work and mathematics demonstrate that Hero must also have had Parthian and Greek influences.

The date of Hero’s life and work is also unknown but extracts from Columella, a Roman agriculturalist, demonstrate that he was alive in AD 62. The current consensus of opinion is that Hero was born between AD 10 and 20, and died between AD 70 and 100. Hero is known to have been resident in Alexandria, Egypt, and probably studied at the great Mouseion (or Musaeum), the Temple of the Muses. The Mouseion was less of a museum or a temple as we would understand it, and more of a university, a center of research and education that included the Great Library of Alexandria.

In addition to making machines for the temples, Hero also designed and made a host of wonderful machines from automatic doors (operated by lighting a fire on the altar), to slot machines, life-sized robots, mechanical singing birds, self-trimming wicks for lamps, an odometer or distance-measuring device, the mechanism for a siphoned flushing toilet, and a highly effective fire engine. He also produced the mechanical equivalent of a woman being sawn in half, with the sword instead cutting through the neck of a mechanical horse, while the head of the horse remained firmly but inexplicably fixed to its body. Such was this skill and novelty that he was known as Michanikos, the ‘Machine Man’.

In short, Hero was the Leonardo da Vinci of his day; a man whose skill and knowledge spanned the many sciences, and whose vision eclipsed the greatest minds of his day. Like Leonardo, Hero was centuries, if not millennia, ahead of his time; a man who could have ushered in the Industrial Revolution during the first century AD, some sixteen centuries before it actually happened. Here we have a remarkable individual, a man whose contraptions could utterly amaze and dazzle the public. However, like Leonardo, this skill did not go unnoticed by the aristocracy and the priesthood, for here was a man who could convince the common people that god was actually present in a temple – for how else could these icons and animals move and speak?

Thus, it is entirely possible that one of Hero of Alexandria's devices was used by a new sect of Judaism in the 1 st century, and this cunning device became rather famous in later centuries and millennia. And we can be fairly certain that this did indeed happen, because among Hero’s many contraptions designed for entertainment, he created several different trick jars and jugs that, through ingenious internal compartments, plumbing, siphons and air-holes, a magician could alternate between the pouring of water or wine from the same vessel. An original account and image of this device is contained in Hero’s treatise on siphons, entitled ‘A Vessel from which Wine or Water may be made to flow, separately or mixed’ .

Steam Engine - Hero of Alexandria

Fig 1. The 'steam engine' made by Hero of Alexandria in the 1 st century AD.

However, in the Gospel of John we have a description of this very same device being used to entertain the family of Jesus:

Jesus said unto them, ‘Fill the water-pots with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. And he said unto them, ‘Draw out now, and take it to the governor of the feast.’ And they took it. When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it came from (but the servants which drew the water knew). The governor of the feast called the bridegroom ... and said ... you have kept the good wine until now.  (John 2:10)

The trick 'water to wine' jug made by Hero of Alexandria
Fig 2. The trick 'water to wine' jug made by Hero of Alexandria in the 1 st century AD.


This is said to be one of the primary miracles that Jesus performed, and yet it is highly likely that it was a simple mechanical device based upon the principle of the syphon. And we have a complete description of the design and operation of this same device from Hero himself. The instructions Hero wrote say:


Tsurugi's picture

This was very interesting, but the end was a bit confusing. It seems like you're trying to discredit someone but I'm not sure who, exactly. Is it Jesus, for tricking people and passing it off as a real miracle? Or is it John, for writing the story without mentioning it was a joke? The Catholic church, for not knowing it was a party trick 600 years later? If it is the last one....well, what do you expect? Religious people aren't big partygoers, so they can't be expected to know a lot of party tricks, you know?

As Jesus was supposedly gone by AD 30 or thereabouts, Hero must have cranked that particular design out during his early teens for it to be present at that wedding....if the timelines are correct. Hard to say. Hero's timeline is iffy, and despite the apparent certainty implied by "Anno Domini", there is plenty of debate on when Jesus was actually born...or if he was even born at all.

Still, the water/wine siphon device is interesting, though I wonder about the assertion it is a "well-known" trick...well-known by whom? Not being a religious person myself, I've gone to a lot of parties and I've never seen or heard of one. I wonder if I could rig one up for Vodka...

Also, I don't think the water to wine incident is a "cornerstone", exactly. Christians seem more focused on the death/rebirth thing as the cornerstone of the belief. The various "miracles"...healing the sick, unblinding a blind guy with mud of spit and dust, feeding thousands of people out of a single lunchbox, walking on water, etc..--they are all interesting but otherwise ancillary tales.
Personally, I like the water to wine story. It has come in handy when confronted with Christians of one of the sects that believes any partaking of alcohol is sinful. Recounting the wedding story shuts them up, but they don't like it. Maybe they would agree with the assertion that the whole story is made up, or was just a trick that has been misunderstood or mischaracterized, because that would fit their preconceptions...?

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