The Antikythera Mechanism

The Antikythera MechanismIn the evolution of engineering principals and technology, it is well known that the long march to our technological opulence began in the mid 14th century, with the introduction of the first finely tooled mechanisms in the form of astronomical clocks in Western Europe…or did it?

What if I told you that such devices were made more than 1000 years before?  Well, hold onto your hats!

I give you the Antikythera Mechanism. Found by sponge divers in the Aegean Sea near the Greek island of Antikythera in 1900, the Antikythera Mechanism (pronounced antik-e-thera) is an engineering curiosity that has baffled researchers for the better part of a century.

While there is some argument about its purpose, the general consensus is that it is an astronomically based ancient analog computer.  Yes, you read that right, a computer.  Efforts to date the device, which contains many finely constructed gears and inscriptions, have placed its construction to around 87 BCE.  antikythera_mechanism_remainsAgain, yes, you read that right.  Built at a time when man’s understanding of the universe was more than somewhat primitive, prior to the discovery of gravity and theories of planetary motion, this computer is the earliest known example of a complex gear mechanism.  Other examples of which weren’t seen for another 1000 years.

Retrieved with the mechanism were numerous artefacts, including bronze and marble statues, pottery, glassware, jewellery, and coins which were transferred to the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens for storage and analysis. The mechanism itself went unnoticed for 2 years; it was a lump of corroded bronze and wood and the museum staff had many other pieces with which to busy themselves. On 17 May 1902, archaeologist Valerios Stais was examining the finds and noticed that one of the pieces of rock had a gear wheel embedded in it.

While a curiosity, serious scientific scrutiny of the piece didn’t occur until 1951, when physicist and historian of science Derek J. de Solla Price took notice and began subjecting the device to more pointed scientific examination.

A replica of the Antikythera Mechanism
A replica of the Antikythera Mechanism

All of the mechanism’s instructions are written in Koine Greek, and the consensus among scholars is that the mechanism was made in the Greek-speaking world. One hypothesis is that the device was constructed at an academy founded by the Stoic philosopher Posidonius on the Greek island of Rhodes, which at the time was known as a center of astronomy and mechanical engineering; this hypothesis further suggests that the mechanism may have been designed by the astronomer Hipparchus, since it contains a lunar mechanism which uses Hipparchus’s theory for the motion of the Moon. However, recent findings of The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project suggest that the concept for the mechanism originated in the colonies of Corinth, which might imply a connection with Archimedes.

Mainstream science, while unable to agree on some of the details, is largely unanimous in its assertion that this, while a piece out of time, is definitely man-made.  As much as conspiracy theorists might have different ideas, the marvel of this artefact is the fact that nothing like it has ever been found of the same period.  The mechanism itself is broken up into 82 different fragments, seven of which, considered major fragments, contain inscriptions or gear and dial components.  Several reconstructions and duplications have been made over the years and many can be found in museums around the world.

Among such curiosities as the Baigong Pipes –a network of strange pipes drilled into the mountainside about 40 km southwest of the city of Delingha, in the Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province, China dated to a time before Zeus- the Antikythera Mechanism is thought by some to be an artefact of one or more unknown and technologically advanced civilizations.  There’s even some talk of this mechanism being the product of alien-human technology and information sharing.

Whatever your particular bent, it’s clear that the Antikythera Mechanism has one hell of a story to tell, and The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project should be releasing some very interesting findings in the very near future.

What do you think the Antikythera Mechanism is?

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