Pausanias VI 20, 10-14

The Greeks had already complicated automatons. An example of this is the starting mechanism at Olympia.

If you climb over the stand of the stadion along the side where the hellanodikai are seated, you reach a terrain, left unpaved for the horse races, and the starting mechanism for the horses. The starting mechanism has the form of the prow of a ship, with the bow pointing to the race-track. Along the side where the prow touches the column of Agnaptos, it is broad. At the farthest tip of the bow they constructed a bronze dolphin on a pole. Both sides of the starting mechanisme are more than 400 feet long and there are starting gates incorporated in them. These starting gates are assigned by lot to the competitors in the horse races. Before the chariots or the ridden horses a rope is stretched out instead of a bar smacking down. An altar of unbaked stone, plastered with ash on the outside, is constructed every olympiad in about the middle of the prow. On the altar is sitting an eagle with his wings stretched out. The responsible for the races operates the mechanism in the altar. When it is put into motion, the eagle flies up automatically, so that it is clearly visible for the spectators. The dolphin dives down. The first cables to fall down, are those on both sides of the column of Agnaptos and the horses in this positions leave first. At the moment that they pass the horses assigned by lot to the second row, the cables of the second row fall down in the same way. In the same way it happens for all horses, until they are even at the bow of the prow. From then on it is a matter of the expertise of the drivers and the speed of the horses.
The original inventor of the starting mechanism was Kleoitas and he was proud of his invention, like the inscription on a statue in Athens reveals: ‘The first inventor of the starting mechanism for horses at Olympia made me: Kleoitas, son of Aristokles.’ They say that after Kleoitas Aristeides sophisticated the mechanism.


Pausanias' books about Elis

© KU Leuven, 2012