The Ten Books on Architecture, 10.1

Vitruvius  translated by Joseph Gwilt

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Of Machines and Engines

1A machine is a combination of materials capable of moving great weights. It derives its power from that circular application of motion which the Greeks call κυκλικὴ κίνησις. The first species is for scaling (scansoria), which the Greeks call ἀκροβατικὸς. The second, wherein the wind is the moving power, is, by the Greeks, called πνευματικὸς. The third sort of machine is for draft, and they call it βάναυσος. The scaling machine is constructed for the purpose of ascending, without danger, to view works of considerable altitude, and is formed of long pieces of timber connected together by transverse pieces. The pneumatic machine is for the purpose of imitating the sounds of stringed and wind instruments, by means of a rush of air organically introduced.

2Machines of draft are constructed for the purpose of removing or raising great weights. The scaling machine is one more of boldness than art, being a combination of longitudinal timbers connected together by cross pieces, the splicings well lashed together, and the whole supported by shores or props. But the machine which, by the action of wind, produces very pleasing effects, requires great ingenuity in its construction. The machines for draft perform much greater and more important operations, in their application to different purposes, and, when skilfully managed, are of great utility.

3Of these some act mechanically, others organically. The difference between machines and organs is this, that the former are composed of many subordinate parts, or propelled by a great power, as balistæ for instance, and wine-presses; whereas, the latter, by an ingenious application of the moving power, can be set in motion by a single person, as in turning the axis of the scorpion or anisocycli. Thus organs, as well as machines, are extremely useful and necessary, inasmuch as, without them, no works could be carried into execution.

4The laws of mechanics are founded on those of nature, and are illustrated by studying the master-movements of the universe itself. For if we consider the sun, moon and the five planets, we shall perceive, that if they were not duly poised in their orbits, we should neither have light on the earth, nor heat to mature its fruits. Our ancestors reasoned so on these motions, that they adopted nature as their model; and, led to an imitation of the divine institutions, invented machines necessary for the purposes of life. That these might be suitable to their different purposes, some were constructed with wheels, and were called machines; others were denominated organs. Those which were found most useful were gradually improved, by repeated experiments, by art, and by the laws which they instituted.

5Let us, for an instant, reflect on an invention, necessarily of an early period, that of clothing; wherein, by the organic arrangement of the loom, the connexion of the warp to the woof not only defends our bodies by the covering it affords, but is likewise an ornament to them. Again; how should we be supplied with food, but for the yokes and ploughs to which oxen and other animals are harnessed? Without the aid of wheels and axles, of presses and levers, we could enjoy neither the comforts of good oil, nor of the fruit of the vine. Without the aid of carts and waggons on land, and ships on the sea, we should be unable to transport any of our commodities. How necessary also, is the use of scales and weights in our dealings, to protect us from fraud. Not less so are innumerable different machines, which it is unnecessary here to discuss, since they are so well known from our daily use of them, such as wheels generally, the blacksmith’s bellows, chariots, calêches, lathes, and other things which our habits constantly require. We will, therefore, proceed to explain, in the first place, those which are more rarely wanted.

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