Science & Technology

Classic Car Enthusiast


Engineering professor explores the mysteries of chariots.

When Bela Sandor toured the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo fifteen years ago, he was entranced by magnificent exhibits that showcased ancient Egyptian jewelry and the mummies of famed Pharaohs. He all but ignored the chariots. “I was not terribly impressed,” says Sandor, who retired in 1997 after thirty years as a professor in the Department of Engineering Physics.

But on a second visit in 2000, he noticed an inexplicable crack in a spoke on the wheel of one of King Tutankhamun’s chariots. Sandor, who is an expert in fracture, fatigue, stress, and strain in materials — particularly materials for autos and aircraft — was hooked.

When he returned to the United States, he began researching chariots. While he found a wealth of archaeological information, there was a dearth of technical detail, meaning he had the chance to be the first modern engineer to explore chariot construction.

“It’s like entering a huge toy store and you are the only kid,” he says.

Today, Sandor has reinvented himself as an international expert on chariot techno-archaeology. When the PBS series NOVA ran a documentary called Building Pharaoh’s Chariot in February 2013, he was the sole technical expert. In the spirit of the epic drama Ben-Hur, the documentary (shown above) follows scientists who built two accurate replicas of Egyptian royal chariots.

Ancient or not, engineering and technology have fascinated Sandor since his youth in his native Hungary. He has conducted materials research at Lockheed Palo Alto Research Labs in California and GKN Technology Research Centre in the United Kingdom. In 1985, he became the first officially recognized guest professor of Osaka University and was a research fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, lecturing all over Japan, at universities, many different industries, and government labs.

At nearly seventy-eight years old, Sandor says he’s attempting to slow down. But newfound fame from NOVA has kicked lecture requests into high gear. With a recent talk to the Madison Biblical Archaeology Society (founded by the late Menahem Mansoor, a professor of Hebrew and Semitic studies), he is off and running with yet another area of expertise. “Now I am in business as a freshly minted Biblical archaeologist,” he says. “My story touches on the Iliad, the Bible, Celts and Romans, and Ben-Hur.”

Published in the Summer 2013 issue


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