Ancient Mysteries: The Antikythera Mechanism

Antikythera’s harbour Potamos” by Jimmyoneill at English Wikipedia
Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
One of the most mysterious finds to ever come out of Ancient Greece was the Antikythera Mechanism. (If you’re wondering how to pronounce it, the answer is: an”ti-ki-thēr’u.) This device was found in the wreckage of an Ancient Greek sailing vessel found somewhere between 1900-1901 just off the cost of Antikythera, a small island lying between Crete and Peloponnese.

One can never fault archeologists for being too creative with their naming decisions. On the bright side, at least no one dubbed it the Ancient Greek doohickey.

Dated to somewhere between 150 to 100 BC, for decades the Antikythera Mechanism was considered to be nothing more than a particularly interesting astrolabe. Astrolabes were inventions from the Hellenistic period that were used largely for telling time and determining latitude. At the time, more than a hundred years ago, it was a logical but cautious conclusion.

However, other researches had long been convinced that the Antikythera Mechanism was far too complex to just be a simple astrolabe. The problem to convincing anyone that this was not an astrolabe was simply this: as of the early 1900’s there had never been any prior evidence found of people widely using precisely and scientifically accurate gears to create a device until the time of the fourteen century. That’s a 1400 year gap.

Of course, this isn’t the first time technology from the ancient world has gone inexplicably missing. The Romans had their own version of concrete, opus signinum Some in the modern era believe they have cracked the secret of how it was made, but the technology did exist more than 2000 years ago. How about Damascus steel? That spent ages lost and has been, debatably, rediscovered as well, and that’s just the tip of the lost technology iceberg…

The point is that we cannot assume with any reasonable certainty that we ‘know’ anything about the past for certain. We sometimes mistakenly believe our ancestors were more primitive than they actually were. Let’s give our ancestors some props here, guys. In reality, all we can do is make best guesses based on the evidence at hand. Some of those guesses are more certain than others, and at any time you may be proven wrong.

Antikythera Mechanism - Fragment A
Antikythera Mechanism – Fragment A” Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Which brings us back to the Antikythera Mechanism, and the fact that it’s not an astrolabe in the slightest. In the last ten years, this remarkable device has gone through countless rounds of new studies and tests thanks to imaging and x-ray technologies that allow researchers to literally see through the corrosion.

With these technologies, they have been able to enumerate the number of teeth on various gear wheels and read long obscured Greek text engraved on the device’s components. There is a very detailed breakdown of the device’s schematics, the math behind it, and the Greek text available on Wikipedia for the truly curious.

Knowing these kind of details proved invaluable to deciphering that the Antikythera Mechanism is not a astrolabe but an early complex gear mechanism and, arguably, the world’s first known computer. The Antikythera Mechanism’s intended purpose was as a sort of solar clock which was capable of predicting astronomical positions and eclipses.

Even more amazing in my mind is that this was probably not the only one of its kind. Why? Because it’s nearly perfect in the context of Greek knowledge regarding astronomy (which was imperfect compared to what we know now). The precision and skill it would take to craft such a device hints that this was probably not the first or last of its kind. It’s nearly certain that there were other such devices like this in antiquity that simply did not survive to the present for one reason or another.

From the perspective of computer programming, this also raises an interesting question. Who originally created the formulas and equations for the number of gears and teeth to make this device work?

Some scholars suggest that the device or at least its predecessors could have connections to Archimedes or the school of thought and astronomy he birthed during his lifetime. Archimedes certainly is a viable candidate as he has been credited in history already as one of the finest inventors of Ancient Greece.

So what do you think?  Could this device have some other use beyond what we’ve already discovered? Do you think other such devices might have existed in Greece or Rome? If so – could they have been purposed to other ends beyond simply astronomy? Could Ada Lovelace be dethroned by Archimedes? (Most importantly, why am I out of coffee?)

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