If you think that alarm systems for home protection are something new, you’d better think again. One of the first security alarms ever created was used by homeowners in ancient Athens and relied on water, although not, as you might imagine, to douse the intruder who was attempting to enter the house. In fact, clever engineering used water and air to create a whistling sound that would alert the owner in case of a break-in.
I would have certainly found that piece of information fascinating enough had I read it in a book, but after having seen a working replica in the Kotsanas Museum in the center of Athens, I am even more impressed.
The Kotsanas Museum is a unique modern museum where visitors of all ages, locals and tourists alike, can admire working models of ancient Greek inventions, many of which constitute precursors of modern machines.
An inspired re-inventor
Kostas Kotsanas, the founder of the Kotsanas Museum, is an engineer who studied at the University of Patras in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Aeronautics. His interest in ancient Greek writings emerged when, as a university student, he attended what he thought was going to be an academic symposium but which turned out to be a poetry night, dedicated to literature and ancient Greek poetry.
Following this experience, he began studying ancient Greek, Latin and Arabic literature in order to research and recreate ancient devices as they were described in the millennia-old texts, including clocks, odometers, and games.
Kotsanas has created a thoroughly impressive body of work in his efforts to highlight the technological prowess and ingenuity of the ancient Greeks. In total, he has recreated roughly 500 fully functional, life-sized replicas of devices that once represented the cutting edge of ancient Greek technology.
All of these devices have been made from the same materials and built using the same methods as the originals, and many have already traveled across the globe as part of a temporary exhibition hosted at important museums, institutions and universities.
In Greece, there are a total of four museums founded by Kotsanas that deal with the theme of ancient technology: the first being the Museum of Ancient Greek Technology in Katakolo in the western Peloponnese, which opened in 2003. A year later, in 2004, he launched the Archimedes Museum at nearby Ancient Olympia. Both museums are located near to Kotsanas’ family home.
Just four years ago, the Athens museum opened, bringing many of the exhibits to the Greek capital, and in 2019, the newest museum was established in Irakleio on Crete.
One of the most important features of the museum is that visitors have the opportunity to see the machines working in real time as they explore the exhibition.
In each museum, over 100 devices are on display; even today, many seem cutting-edge or even futuristic. The exhibit items are arranged in 24 different categories, such as Telecommunications and Cryptography, Computation, and even Automatic Navigation and Robotics.
There is also one floor of the museum dedicated to ancient musical instruments, with exhibits replicas of the first piano and the first drum set in the world.
The museum also stages occasional temporary exhibitions, focusing on different themes such as ancient toys and games.
Among the many devices visitors will encounter are two from the 3rd century BC inventor Philo of Byzantium. It is well known that in ancient times people used to drink their wine mixed with water. Thinking practically, Philo created a container with two chambers, one for water and one for wine. He then created two air openings on the handle of the container. By covering one opening or the other with his thumb, the server could decide which liquid poured from the jug.
Its inventor, however, did not stop there. He created the world’s first robot, a human-sized figure that resembled a serving woman with an internal contraption that would dispense wine when a cup was placed in its hand. This marvel once held pride of place in the ancient market of Alexandria.
Other impressive inventions include: a complex mechanism hidden underground in the courtyards of temples to stage a “miracle” whenever a sacrifice was made at the altar; the steam-powered flying dove of Archytas (the first autonomous flying machine); an ancient fire-fighting pump, functionally the same as those used up until about a century ago; different medical tools; and kitchen gadgets.
Somewhat reminiscent of the hidden messages described in “The Da Vinci Code,” the ancient Greeks developed complex systems of cryptography. They also developed complex telecommunications in order deliver messages between people located in distant places, using fire signals and other innovative methods.
Virtual tours and lockdown options
I had the opportunity to visit, virtually of course, the collection housed in the Athens museum. Due to the restrictions resulting from the pandemic, all museums in Greece are currently closed.
However, the Kotsanas Museum is already well-experienced in organizing virtual tours of their spaces; from its very first year of operation, the museum initiated an innovative program to provide virtual tours for the inmates of the correctional centers around the country. This gave the museum a head start when, during the first lockdown, they were tasked with offering a variety of virtual activities for those wishing to visit the museum during this period.
Those services, which are still offered, include live-stream virtual tours with the assistance of a museum guide and available on the date and time chosen by the visitor; a walk-through tour of the permanent exhibition of the museum; and several themed exhibitions inspired by current affairs.
What’s more, for an activity that’s fun for the whole family, you can also order a craft kit from the museum shop to be sent to your home. With it, you and your eager helpers can recreate some of the exhibits on your own, simply following the easy step-by-step instructions.
Until you can take your family to a museum again, this is a great way to have fun together and learn new things at the same time.
The work that has been done by Kostas Kotsanas is inspiring. So too is the fact that his two sons are eager to continue his dream, as they welcome visitors to a friendly environment, staffed by enthusiastic people happy to be part of this unique museum’s team.