The Antikythera Mechanism


On display in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens are fragments of a mechanism which appears to be an ancient analog computer a possible forerunner to the great astronomical clocks of the Middle Ages.

The Antikythera Mechanism was found buried among the remains of a Roman galley off Point Glyphadia on the island of Antikythera. The wreckage had been discovered in October 1900, by sponge divers sheltering from a
storm in the lee of the island. They recovered marble statues, pottery, glassware, jewelry, coins and the mechanism itself which was sent to the National Archaeological Museum of Athens for evaluation. The mechanism, an unprepossessing clump of corroded bronze and rotted wood fragments, suffering by comparison with the other objects, was put aside and then forgotten. It wasn't until two years later in May 1902, that museum director Valerios Stais, while examining the finds, noticed that one of the larger bronze pieces had an inscription and what looked like a cog-wheel embedded in its side. Further investigation placed a date of origin around 100 BCE, but as to its intended purpose little was known and interest in the project soon waned.

This was to change decades later when physicist and information scientist Derek J. de Solla Price, an Englishman researching the history of scientific instuments, came across a reference to the artifact. Intrigued he visited the museum and was astounded by what he saw: “Nothing like this instrument is preserved elsewhere. Nothing comparable to it is known from any ancient scientific text or literary allusion. On the contrary from all that we know of science and technology in the Hellenistic Age we should have felt that such a device could not exist.”


Reconstruction efforts produced a reasonable facsimile of the original: a wooden box with inset dials, its surface covered with inscriptions and an astronomical calendar, the cavity inside containing a complex system of meshing differential gears, their role uncertain, the unit as a whole exhibiting a level of technological sophistication not reached again until the 14th-century. (In 1971 x-ray photographs taken by the Greek Atomic Energy Commission and then later enhanced revealed how the mechanism would have worked.)

However it's described or whatever its function (mechanical analog computer, astronomical clock [1] or social calendar) the Antikythera mechanism to quote Price "requires us to completely rethink our attitudes towards ancient Greek technology," and then at a later date "It must surely rank as one of the greatest mechanical inventions of all time."

At the least, it does seem to prove that ancient people possessed a level of scientific acumen far greater than previously thought by mainstream historians.


[1]
 An astronomical clock, is a clock with special mechanisms and dials that display astronomical information such as the relative positions of the sun, moon, zodiacal constellations and sometimes major planets.




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