Monday, April 25, 2011

Cleopatra's Automata

I recently finished reading Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life, and was delighted to come across a reference to the mechanical marvels for which Alexandria was known.

"A center of mechanical marvels,
Alexandria boasted automatic doors and hydraulic lifts, hidden treadmills and coin-operated machines. With invisible wires, siphons, pulleys, and magnets, the Ptolemies could work miracles. Fires erupted and died down; lights flickered from statues' eyes; trumpets blared spontaneously." (p. 70)

From the 3rd through the 1st centuries BCE, Alexandria was known as the center of mechanical engineering. The "Alexandrian School" (not the same as the famous library and gymnasium complex in Alexandria, but related to it) was a group of engineers and architects who designed, built, and wrote treatises on how to make elaborate automata and mechanical marvels of the kind that Schiff describes.

What were these devices? Ktesibios (ca. 3
00-270 BCE) designed a water-pump, a pneumatic catapult, a hydraulic organ, and mechanical birds that trilled the hours on a water-clock. Later engineers refined and expanded Ktesibios' machines, designing drinking fountains (for water or wine), mechanical serving girls, and elaborate theatrical and religious tableaux, including maenads worshiping at a shrine of Dionysus. Cleopatra's contemporary, Hero of Alexandria, designed numerous and elaborate automata for pageantry and stagecraft, including the kinds of sound and visual F/X that Schiff described in Cleopatra's pageantry during her triumphant return to power in 47 BCE. You can find one of the texts, Hero of Alexandria's Pneumatics, translated from the Greek, on-line at Google Books. The diagram above shows one of his designs: Hercules slaying the dragon. Instead of fire, the dragon spits water on Hercules. Maybe not as scary as fire.

It's too bad that Joseph Mankiewicz didn't include these mechanical marvels in his version of the events, but I guess that the incendiary love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was the only special effect he needed. I wonder if the new biopic, starring Angelina Jolie and rumored to be directed by David Fincher, will include some automata. I hope so!

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