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Culture

Herakleidon Reveals Glories of Ancient Greek Science and Tech

ATHENS – There are virtually no arguments about ancient Greece’s contributions to art, literature, philosophy, medicine, but the lead in technology and engineering was traditionally ceded to the Romans and others – until the discovery in 1902 that a chunk of rusted metal from a shipwreck was more than it seemed. Later studies proved it was a sophisticated astronomical calculator, some call it an analog computer: The famed Antikythera Mechanism.

The Herakleidon Museum of science, art, and mathematics in the shadow of the Acropolis shines a glorious spotlight on those achievements through exhibitions that include working models – videos are available on its website too – and support for scholars who continue to make discoveries.

The Herakleidon, whose beautiful facilities constitute as much a cultural center as a museum, is the vision of its founders, Paul Firos and his wife Anna-Belinda Firos, and its General Manager is Eleni Nomikou.

The museum’s birth is a story of their looking back with pride to their ancestors’ achievements and `giving back’ from the fruits of their own achievements.

Left to right: Eleni Nomikos, Paul and Anna-Belinda Firos, AHEPA Greece Solon HJ-4 Chapter President George Malamo, and Ahepan Alexandros Dimas. (Photo by Constantine Sirigos)

Paul Firos’ parents were born in Cairo. Both grandfathers were merchants who died young and left behind substantial estates that funded superior education for their children.

“In school we studied learned Italian, Greek, French, English” – his Greek is excellent, notwithstanding that he began to speak at 15, when the family was forced to flee Nasser’s Egypt. In high school in Greece, “math, chemistry, physics were like child’s play for me – but ancient Greek history was a problem,” adding with an appreciative smile that his teachers helped him pass. At university in France he earned a degree in information studies, which put him ahead of his time.

Returning to Greece, he worked a year at Honeywell-Bull, after which he joined the company’s Timeshare startup. He then seized an opportunity to work developing information systems for hotels, which was the vision of Yiannis Carras, before his dream of developing his great resort, Porto Carras.

That entailed a trip – he had just married Anna-Belinda – to the United States to learn the Singer Computer machines they had ordered.

A working model of the Antikythera Mechanism. (Photo by Constantine Sirigos)

“That’s when I saw what the future would be like,” and I decided we would stay there. I called Carras, in 1975, who wanted me to return.” Among his reasons for staying in America was his realization that the systems being produced for hotels “were flimsy, and I thought of better solutions.” When Honeywell sent him to Paris, he learned “a programming method rather, software analysis, that was so advanced it is still used today, and that I further developed. I told Belinda let’s take the money we saved an take a risk.” Carras was both understanding and generous – Belinda whose father is English and her mother is Greek from Cephalonia, was pregnant with their first child, which was another reason for not moving back.

“With our mini budget I began to write programs, and returning to New York I joined with a partner. The Olivetti corporation agreed to implement our solutions – but when the company’s computers kept crashing, he decided, “OK we will do it on our own,” naming the company Hotel Data Systems.

When the personal computer era arrived, he and the partner went separate ways. Eventually Paul realized progress in both programming and sales required two different people, so he hired a man who worked out so well they eventually became 50/50 partners – and a good friend.

In the meantime, they moved on from hotels to central reservations systems, and when the Amadeus Air Reservation company learned the company could provide them with new capabilities that were needed, Firos sold the company.

“We let go of computer science and the museum become the center of our interests,” he said.

The original idea was for a museum of art, with their own Escher collection as its foundation, and in cooperation with other museums. “We opened on July 23, 2004 – on Linda’s birthday.”

A working model of Hero of Alexandria’s steam ‘engine’. (Photo by Constantine Sirigos)

That continued until 2014, when Eleni Nomikos came on board and the transition began. She was then in charge of their successful educational interactive programs on art and mathematics for children, which continue and have been expanded.

They realized the modern art scene in Greece was not worthwhile, demanding the big names, “brand names; in the arts, not new names and young artists,” Paul said. The Greek state is also not flexible regarding bringing in expensive art works – and major donations, like what the family donated – are taxed.

They still loan objects from their collections, which is one of the means of funding the new science museum after the Greek economic crisis cut into attendance. “Not wanting to close or cut staff, we thought leasing out our collection and others’,” said Paul.

A remarkable occurrence followed.

“We received a note from a museum in China which was interesting in an exchange of exhibitions – ancient Chinese and Greek technology,” and we agreed, believing that would be our future.”

They work with an eminent association of university professors who undertake research but don’t have outlets. Paul noted, “we reached a longterm agreement whereby they do the research and we present the results. From the association’s initial three, there are now more than 50 exhibits.”

The great success of the exhibitions – there was a corresponding one of Chinese works in Athens – justified the logistical nightmares involved said Belinda, who’s degree in interpretation is valuable for such endeavors and who owns a school of interpreters which sharpened her logistical expertise. The exhibitions solidified the new ideas for the museum.

Today, visitors are fascinated by the presentations of the learned and enthusiastic tour guide Pantelis Mitsiou from Karditsa.

He elaborates on displays of devices and large scale engineering projects from Mycenaean and Cycladic civilizations to Hellenistic times, including substantial displays about the Antikythera Mechanism, whose gear total has reached 54 and its understanding by scholars of its functioning is now at 97% said Mitsiou.

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