The application of mechanical engineering can be seen in the archives of various ancient and medieval societies. In ancient Greece, the works of Archimedes (287–212 BC) influenced mechanics in the Western tradition and Heron of Alexandria (c. 10–70 AD) created the first steam engine (Aeolipile). In China, Zhang Heng (78–139 AD) improved a water clock and invented a seismometer, and Ma Jun (200–265 AD) invented a chariot with differential gears. The medieval Chinese horologist and engineer Su Song (1020–1101 AD) incorporated an escapement mechanism into his astronomical clock tower two centuries before escapement devices were found in medieval European clocks. He also invented the world's first known endless power-transmitting chain drive.
During the Islamic Golden Age (7th to 15th century), Muslim inventors made remarkable contributions in the field of mechanical technology. Al-Jazari, who was one of them, wrote his famous Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices in 1206 and presented many mechanical designs. He is also considered to be the inventor of such mechanical devices which now form the very basic of mechanisms, such as the crankshaft and camshaft.
During the 17th century, important breakthroughs in the foundations of mechanical engineering occurred in England. Sir Isaac Newton formulated Newton's Laws of Motion and developed Calculus, the mathematical basis of physics. Newton was reluctant to publish his works for years, but he was finally persuaded to do so by his colleagues, such as Sir Edmond Halley, much to the benefit of all mankind. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is also credited with creating Calculus during this time period.
During the early 19th century industrial revolution, machine tools were developed in England, Germany, and Scotland. This allowed mechanical engineering to develop as a separate field within engineering. They brought with them manufacturing machines and the engines to power them. The first British professional society of mechanical engineers was formed in 1847 Institution of Mechanical Engineers, thirty years after the civil engineers formed the first such professional society Institution of Civil Engineers. On the European continent, Johann von Zimmermann (1820–1901) founded the first factory for grinding machines in Chemnitz, Germany in 1848.
In the United States, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) was formed in 1880, becoming the third such professional engineering society, after the American Society of Civil Engineers (1852) and the American Institute of Mining Engineers (1871). The first schools in the United States to offer an engineering education were the United States Military Academy in 1817, an institution now known as Norwich University in 1819, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1825. Education in mechanical engineering has historically been based on a strong foundation in mathematics and science.