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What The Ancients Did For Us - The Greeks

Updated Wednesday, 12th January 2005

Find out more about The Ancient Greeks programme, part of the BBC/OU's 'What the Ancients Did for Us' TV series

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Testing Archimedes' death ray

The ancient Greek civilisation flourished for about a thousand years, not as a unified country but rather as a loose association of city states, both on the mainland of Greece and elsewhere around the Mediterranean. The philosopher Plato described the states as being like a series of frogs sitting around a pond. Although the Greeks drew on the ideas of various earlier civilisations, they were the people who, more than any other, handed down to us the foundations of our democracy, our notions of ethics and justice, our science, our mathematics and our music.

But it mustn't be forgotten that the Greeks were a warlike lot and in order to pursue their territorial ambitions they invented some deadly weapons – for instant take the bow and arrow. Aware of its limitations and short range they mechanised it like a giant cross bow. It was loaded by bearing down on it with your whole body weight and it became known as the Belly Bow. The Greeks also invented the catapult and designed monster machines that could throw huge pieces of ammunition crushing their hapless opponents. Archimedes is reputed to have built a solar powered death ray which could set ablaze any enemy ships that came in range. In wartime communications between allies is vital so they came up with telegraphy and later semaphore.

To keep their troops in the peak of fitness they invented the Olympic games of 776 BC and built wonderful stadiums to hold them in. To keep the sport fair they also invented the starting gate which was based on a torsion mechanism. To keep things fair in politics they encouraged democracy and invented Jury Allotment Machines - a clever device designed to select people for jury service which aimed to cut out the possibility of corruption. When it came to having fun they gave us drama, acting, stage sets, literature and built wonderful outdoor theatres. They also invented the first Robots to amuse and baffle the audiences, and to raise their spirits they listened to the Water Organ, a machine that claims the first known use of compressed air.

But perhaps their most amazing invention is the first known computer. This was a small box stuffed with cogs and moving parts all skilfully made and by turning a handle it would display the movements of planets to an astonishing degree of accuracy -in fact it was a planetarium.

First broadcast: Wednesday 16 Feb 2005 on BBC TWO

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