Enter the maze

Beheading Hero's mechanical horse

A painting of a Pegasus

Stories of Ancient Greece abound with myths but also of amazing inventions. Some of the earliest automatons, mechanical precursors of robots, were created by the Ancient Greeks. Intended to delight and astound or be religious idols, they brought statues of animals and people to life. One story holds that Hero of Alexandria invented a magical, mechanical horse that not only moved and drank water, but was also impossible to behead. It just carried on drinking as you sliced a sword clean through its neck. The head remained solidly attached to body. Myth or Mystery? How could it be done?

The Ancient Greeks were clever. With many inventions we think of as modern, the Greeks got there first. They even invented the first known computer. Hero of Alexandria was one of the cleverest, an engineer and prolific inventor. Despite living in the first century, he invented the first known steam engine (long before the famous ones from the start of the industrial revolution), the first vending machine, a musical instrument that was the first wind-powered machine, and even the pantograph, a parallelogram structure used to make exact copies of drawings, enlarged or reduced. Did Hero invent a magical mechanical horse? He did, and you really could slice cleanly through its robotic neck with a sword, leaving the head in place.

Magic, myth and mystery

Queen Mary's Peter McOwan was fascinated by magic and especially Hero’s horse as a child, and was keen to build one. When TEMI, a European project was funded he had his chance. TEMI aimed to bring more showmanship, magic and mystery to schools to increase motivation. By making lessons more like detective work, solving mysteries, they can be lots more fun. The project needed lots of mysteries, just like Hero’s horse, and artist Tim Sargent was commissioned to recreate the horse.

If you’re ever in Athens, you can see a version of Hero’s horse, as well as many other Greek inventions at Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology.

How does it work?

The challenge was to create a version that used only Ancient Greek technology - no electricity or electromagnets, only mechanical means like gears, bearings, levers, cogs and the like. It was actually done with a clever rotating wheel. As the sword slices through a gap in the neck, it always connects head and body together first in front, then behind the blade. Can you work out how it was done? See a video of the mechanism in action below

or if the above doesn't work in your browser see it here.