On display in the
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.
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
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
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.”
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
gears, their role uncertain, the unit as a whole exhibiting a
of technological sophistication not reached again until the
14th-century. (In 1971
x-ray photographs taken by the Greek Atomic Energy Commission and then
enhanced revealed how the mechanism would have worked.)
described or whatever its function (mechanical analog
computer, astronomical clock  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.
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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