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Sennacherib, Archimedes, and the Water Screw: The Context of Invention in the Ancient World

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 44, Number 1, January 2003
pp. 1-26 | 10.1353/tech.2003.0011


Invention of the water screw is traditionally credited to the third-century B.C. Greek scientist-engineer Archimedes, on the basis of numerous Greek and Latin texts and the technological context of Hellenistic Alexandria. An Assyrian text from the seventh century B.C. may be interpreted to show that king Sennacherib cast such a device in bronze at Nineveh, for use in his palace garden. Such an argument may be strengthened by comparison with details of Assyrian technical capabilities in large-scale casting and in making bearings, and with later Greek texts referring to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The method for casting a bronze screw implied in the Assyrian text and instructions for building a wooden water screw provided by Vitruvius were reproduced for a television program. Arguments are presented for and against the invention of the device centuries before Archimedes, together with a discussion of the social context in which such inventions took place in antiquity.