ENGINEERS WHO LIVED T WO AND a half millennia ago are remembered in a figure of speech we often use today—deus ex machina. The phrase (Latin for “god from a machine”) refers to a device used in classical Greek and Roman theaters to resolve situations or to move a plot along. A god or supernatural messenger descends to the stage to adjust human affairs.
Typically, we moderns feel cheated because we demand logic. But ancient
playwrights were not similarly constrained. And since the gods of the Greek and
Roman pantheon were not troubled by human restraints like the laws of physics,
they often made their appearance on stage by flying.
In ancient performances
deus ex machina involved a
real machina, specifically a
crane. Engineers assembled an elaborate assortment of hardware to lower
an actor to the stage.
The ancients were
limited to a few wooden
beams, ropes, and pulleys. Probably the most
challenging use of this
machinery occurs in the
finale of the tragedy Medea. If the play was produced as written, a chariot containing three passengers would disappear in the wake of a flying dragon. That would
be a big order even for today’s set designers.
The ancients’ willingness to invest in hardware to support elaborate theatrical
productions indicates how important
the theater was in community life. It
was more than entertainment. The
theater was a religious tradition.
Ancient theaters have been the
subject of a great deal of archaeological
study. This includes efforts to reconstruct the wooden deus ex machina
cranes. None of the machinery has
survived, so reconstruction is based on
evidence in the stones of the amphitheaters.
A January 2010 article, “
Deus-Ex-Machina Mechanism Reconstruction in
the Theater of Phlius, Corinthia,” in the
ASME Journal of Mechanical Design
describes the remains of a theater with
features that may have supported a
stage machine. The authors, Argyris Papadogiannis and Thomas G. Chondros
of the University of Patras in Greece
and Marilena C. Tsakoumaki of King’s
College London, used the evidence at
the theater and in literary references to
work out a very convincing reconstruction of the lifting apparatus.
The paper even contains a stress
and vibration analysis of the assumed
structure. Reading between the lines
tells a lot about the extent to which
various technologies had developed
in the Aegean as early as the fourth
Rope and pulley making, which
began long before in Egypt, had progressed to a point where line was obviously available in unlimited lengths and
was of a quality allowing it to be bent
around sheaves and winch drums. This
technology, combined with a pragmatic
knowledge of structures represented
the ultimate state of the art at the time.
The deus ex machina is an example
of technology serving culture. Just
as electronic recording serves music
today, structures and mechanics have
served the theater. The presence of
“deus ex machina” in today’s vocabulary
reminds us of the intimate connection
that has always existed between technology and art. ME
ROBERT O. WOODS, an ASME Fellow and member
of the History and Heritage Committee, is a frequent
contributor to Mechanical Engineering magazine.
used cranes, pulleys,
winches, and long
ropes to hoist actors
over the stage. Image
Papadogiannis, et al.
A scene from
painted on this
Museum of Art.