This project researched the circulation of pneumatic technologies in antiquity and maps the origins and distribution of technological innovations, as well as the conceptual conditions underlying them – conditions which served as a basis for the formation of new theoretical knowledge. This involves detailed analysis not only of relevant primary sources, but also of archaeological artifacts.


All pneumatic machines, e.g. those invented by Ctesibius of Alexandria or those designed for entertainment purposes, such as singing birds and hydraulic organs, were a potential source of fundamental questions regarding the constitution of matter. The pragmatically oriented Hellenistic thinkers were confronted with these questions and the resulting debates left behind traces in subsequent centuries that can be followed today. Thus far, studies of pneumatics have been limited either to theoretical aspects of the science, e.g. as presented in the works of Heron of Alexandria, or to analyses of its social function, i.e. as a symbol of power in ancient cultures. In the frame of this project, the circulation of pneumatic technologies in antiquity has been mapped.


A freely available database shows the origins and distribution of technological innovations in the frame of pneumatics and, also more generally, of water technology in antiquity.

The database has a focus on water pumps and describes emergence and spread of eighteen different technical devices in the entire Mediterranean area and in Europe.

By matching the collected data with those extrapolated from ancient scientific texts on hydraulics and pneumatics, it clearly revealed that processes of emergence of scientific knowledge takes place in times and places of intense technological implementations and innovations (M. Valleriani, 2016).

In particular, it has been shown that the Greek cultural area of the 3rd century BC as well as the Iberian territory belonging to the Roman empire of the 2nd century AD have been the two moments of maximal innovation in technology and theoretical expansion in science.

Through the collaboration with the Topoi research group (A-3) Water Management and on the basis of the work of Elio Nenci, Professor at the University of Milan, this approach has been further expanded and conformed by bridging from pneumatic to water lifting devices in antiquity. His results are published in open access in modality:

Elio Nenci, “The Water Lifting Devices and the Origin of Ancient Mechanics: Shādūf and Pulley”, in: Jonas Berking (Ed.), Water Management in Ancient Civilizations, Berlin: Edition Topoi, 2018, 71–85)

The investigations moreover differentiated between spread and circulation of technology and its effective usage in order to establish whether not only an intensification of innovations but also of their use can be associated with processes of emergence of scientific knowledge. In this respect, archeological analyses (analyses of carbonate deposits) have been combined with investigations of paleo-environmental conditions associate with the use of specific technologies. The results of this research are being published in open access modality:

Gül Sürmelihindi, “Palaeo-Environmental Condition Factor on the Diffusion of Ancient Water Technologies”, in: Jonas Berking (Ed.), Water Management in Ancient Civilizations, Berlin: Edition Topoi, 2018, 43–69