Link #150: Ancient Romans Used Odometers!



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Link #150: Ancient Romans Used Odometers!

Image credit: osseous/CC BY 2.0

Ancient Rome was a place of wonder, even though there was a sense of barbarism to it. We described their barbarianism in a way in our last article which showed that Colosseum audiences could decide the fate of defeated gladiators by raising their thumbs. However, for a culture based on conquest, ancient Rome was also a place of invention and discovery.

For instance, did you know that those meters in your car for measuring distances can be traced all the way back to ancient romans? Those meters are still called odometers and they were first invented by ancient Romans.

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When Was The First Odometer Invented?

A 1684 depiction of Vitruvius (right). Author: Sebastian Le Clerc/CC0

The first direct proof of an odometer in human history can be traced back to ancient Rome. The first such device was described in a period between 27 BC and 23 BC by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. Even though Vitruvius was a civil engineer, architect, and author, he only described the first odometer.

This means that it is possible that he described a device created by Archimedes of Syracuse. Following this description, similar devices were described by other sources in ancient Rome. For instance, devices like the odometers were described by Alexandria’s Hero in his Dioptra (10 AD to 70 AD) and numerous writings show these devices to be in use in 192 AD.

What Are Odometers?

Odometers are those meters in cars that measure distances. The name of this device is drawn from combining two ancient Greek words. These two words are hodos and metron. Hodos means gateway or path in ancient Greek while the meaning of metron is measure.

Odometers can be electronic or mechanical in nature. However, the oldest odometers were always mechanical in nature. Another name of odometers is odographs with some people even referring to them as tripometers.

Were Odometers Invented By Ancient Greeks?

Strabo as depicted in a 16th-century engraving. Image credit: Brian Boru/CC0

Even though the first odometer like device was described in ancient Rome by Vitruvius, there’s circumstantial evidence that these devices existed even in the time of ancient Greece.

The first real indirect evidence of the odometer came in writings of Strabo when he was describing the routes that Alexander the Great took to conquer the known world. This means that the odometers could’ve existed between 336 BC and 323 BC.

In his descriptions, Strabo gave distances between places that are incredibly accurate. These distances were measured by Alexander the Great’s bematists Baeton and Diognetus. Bematists were specialist distance measurers of the time. Strabo was a historian, philosopher, and geographer of the time.

The distances described by Strabo in his writings were only off by more than three percent once. In fact, on an average, bematists’ measurements only deviated by about 2.8 percent. Modern scientists attribute these deviances to minor differences in the tracks, paths, or roads measured then to the same today.

These minor differences show that it was possible for bematists of the time to possess highly accurate devices. In such a case, these devices would’ve been the earliest type of odometers. Unfortunately, there isn’t any description of these devices.

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