Ergonomics in Ancient Greece

Anthropometrics | Workload Minimisation | Safety | Equipment Design | Tools Design | Design of Utensils


Extracts from Hippocrates (460 - 370 BC) Source document: Kat' Ihtreion (About the hospital)

2. For surgery that occurs in a hospital, the following is required: patient, surgeon, assistants, tools, and lighting; the surgeon must attend to all of the above, as regards their positioning, their use and their number; he should also attend to the patient's position and the surgical instruments; finally, attention should be paid to the time, the method and the place.

3. The surgeon may stand or be seated, in a posture comfortable for him and dependent on the point of operation and the light. There are two types of lighting: natural and artificial. Natural lighting is beyond our control; artificial, however, is controllable. Both types of lighting may be used in two ways namely directly or indirectly. The use of indirect lighting is limited and it is obvious to which degree it is appropriate. Regarding the use of direct lighting, the point of operation must be turned to the most lit area, of those that are appropriate for the operation, unless of course the limbs in question must remain hidden, or are embarrassing to expose to common view. The point of operation must be positioned against the light and the surgeon must stand opposite to the patient, but without shading him. This arrangement allows the surgeon to see clearly, whereas the patient will not be seen. The most appropriate posture for the surgeon is to be seated, with his knees at a right angle and close together. The knees must be a little higher than the bubonic area and slightly apart, so that the elbows can be propped on them or spread wider than the thighs. The surgeon's clothes must be neither too wide nor too tight. They must have no folds and fall symmetrically over the shoulders and elbows. One must also consider the surgeon's position in relation to the point of operation, that is whether he is close or far, at a higher or lower plane, to left right or at the center. The surgeon must be at such a distance that his elbows are behind his knees and in front of his torso. As for seating height, his hands must not be higher than his breasts, while at the same time his chest must not touch his knees and the arms must be at an angle of more than 900. The same rule applies for the center. Movements to the left or to the right must not cause him to leave his seat. If, however, he needs to turn, the patient's body and the area of operation must be repositioned.

5. As regards the tools, we will state how and when they should be used; they must be positioned in such a way as to not obstruct the surgeon, and also be within easy reach when required. They must be close to the surgeon's operating hand. If an assistant passes on the tools, he must be prepared to pass them as soon as they are asked for.

id="Anthropometrics"> Indications for design based on good knowledge of human characteristics

The Parthenon. Knowing the particularities of visual perception, ancient Greek architects designed the buildings in a way so as to give to the observer the impression they wanted. Built on the uneven surface of a giant rock, the Parthenon gives the casual observer the impression that all of its lines are perfectly straight. As the drawing depicts, they are in fact curved. Due to this, the big temple has an air of lightness that belies its volume. (source of the drawing: Muller Wienen 1988).

Bench seats in ancient theatres. The lower part of the bench seats has a pronounced inward curve, fitting the shape of the lower leg. This shape presumably offered two advantages. First, it facilitated the idle movements of the feet during the long hours of the performances. It should be kept in mind that the spectators were supposed to watch four plays consecutively. The casual movement of the legs would increase blood circulation and prevent the onset of numbness. Second, the lower part of the foot could be supported further back (almost directly below the body's centre of gravity), thus providing the necessary leverage to facilitate standing up. This was all the more important due to the lack of handrests, which usually provide support for standing up.. The drawing depicts how the lower part of the seats curved inwards. (source of the drawing: Papathanasopoulos 1993).


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Design for workload minimization

Technique for elevation of loaded carriages. By utilising the weight of the empty carriages and having the mules pull downhill, the elevation of the loaded carriage was made easier and the mules were not unnecessarily exhausted (source of the drawing: Korres 1994).


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Design for safety

Braking system for downhill movement. The stabilising ropes are coiled around stable wooden stakes to prevent the sledge from sliding downhill too fast. The slow uncoiling of the ropes (controlled by workers) allowed the sledge to slide at a steady speed. Another worker, wielding a wooden pole, released the sledge should it get stuck (source of the drawing: Korres 1994).

Braking system for uphill movement. A pair of wooden, wedge-shaped stops are placed behind the rear wheels. The stops are connected by a wooden rod, itself tied to the underside of the carriage to keep the whole system in place (source of the drawing: Korres 1994).


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Design for materials handling facilitation

A number of clever solutions were available to the problem of suspending the heavy marble blocks and winching them to position with millimetric accuracy. During sculpture at the quarry, 'handles' could be formed, which were later removed with on site minute sculpture (Fig. 6, 7). Also, holes (Fig. 1, 2) or grooves (Fig. 3, 4) could be carved in the blocks, if their final position in the completed building rendered them invisible. The 'cancer' (Fig. 10) is a device which tightens its grip as tension increases on its suspension points. All techniques prevent the long blocks from swaying. (source of the drawing: Muller-Wienen 1988).


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Appropriate tools design

Stonecutting tools. This collection of tools was used in stonecutting. Even today their shape remains unchanged, proving that it was honed to perfection through practice. (source of the drawing: Muller-Wienen 1988).

The hand-drill (Fig. 9) presents specific ergonomic interest. It consists of two parts: the drill itself and a bow-like part attached to the top of the drill. At the top of the drill there is a wooden handle used to manipulate the drill. The string of the bow coils around this handle. The operator applies a vertical force on the wooden handle with one hand. With the other hand he 'saws' at the bow. The drill tip is shaped like a reversed cone. Unlike the helix of a modern drill (which must revolve clockwise), this drill may revolve on either direction (although less effectively). This means that both the forward and backward movement of the hand are put to use. It can be argued (subject to experimental verification) that the 'sawing' movement is just as comfortable, if not more so, as the circular movement of modern hand-drills. An added advantage is that large versions of this drill can be operated by two workers, if large holes are required. Drills of this shape were still in use a few decades ago in the stone cutting business.


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Ergonomic design of utensils for everyday needs

Bi-handled bronze urn. The necessary force to lift the urn is applied to the lower handle, whilst the upper one is used to control the flow of the liquid (source of the picture: National Archaeological Museum of Athens).

Tri-handled urn. The two horizontally opposed handles fit for carrying it when full. The third, neck-attached handle fits for carrying the urn when empty. It also facilitates a stabilising grip on the urn when carried on the shoulder (source of the picture: Archaeological Museum of Andros).


Amphoras for storage. The neck-attached handles of these amphoras facilitate easy lifting and allow the pots to be safely stored in a limited space (source of the picture: Grace 1979).

Portable clay oven.The oven is usefully light and compact and features two handles for easy transportation. The fire is fed with oxygen through the rectangular apertures of the base. The clay cover prevents the heat from being wasted in the atmosphere (source of the picture: Sparkes-Talcott 1977).


Child's chair. Although made from a different material, modern chairs have practically the same shape (source of the picture: Thompson 1971).

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