History: The Antikythera Mechanism


If you have never heard of it, the Antikythera Mechanism is a mystery in the archeological and mechanical fields for the past century.  Let’s step into the WayBack machine and travel back 100 years when this object was first discovered.  The year is 1902, and you have been handed a wooden box with bronze gears and dials, assembled with the finest pocket watch precision.  Reading the inscriptions on the box, you realize that this is an astronomical calender which also indicates the position of the planets Mercury and Venus as well as when the next eclipse will occur.  

In a world with new wonders appearing every day, ranging from mighty zeppelins and the Wright brothers taking flight to Henry Ford bringing affordable cars to the public, an astronomical device as advanced as the Antikythera Mechanism would be a logical fit.  The only problem is the device was discovered, not invented, in 1902 by Greek sponge divers off the coast of the island of Antikythera.  Did it fall of a ship a few sometime between when geared table clocks were first invented in the 1500’s to 1900?  Surprisingly, the answer is no.  Carbon dating indicates that this advanced astronomical calculator was created before Jesus walked the face of the Earth.  2000 years before its discovery, someone was sailing across the Mediterranean Sea with a pocket astronomical “computer” on their possession.  Let’s step back into the WayBack machine and go back to 100 B.C. and visit the world where this machine came from.

Greece has recently been annexed to the Roman Empire and the Hellenistic period was in decline.  After decades of battles and occupation, Greece finds a way to continue evolving as a culture and knowledge.  With the Greek language spreading across the Mediterranean (just as English has spread across the world today), so did Greek citizens.  One location where Greeks could be found were in the Great Library of Alexandria, Egypt, reading and translating scroll after scroll of some of the most advanced and detailed scientific notes of the known world.  With this information now written in a language which the masses could read, scientific knowledge in the region increased.  Combine this with the mechanical and astronomical knowledge of the Greeks, we can now see where this device was created.  Unfortunately we don’t know who created it, or how they came up with such a detailed design, let alone the technology to build the device.  Unfortunately, this modern marvel was lost to the sea after its creation, along with many of the answers we now seek.

When the device was initially discovered, it was heavily corroded and indistinguishable.  An archeologist happened to notice a metal gear while cleaning what appeared to be a rock.  After months of work, the device began to take shape.  It wasn’t identified as a solar instrument until a few decades after the discovery, and even in the 1970s they did not know its full purpose.  With modern X-ray equipment, detailed mechanical drawings of the gears were made, identifying 37 individual gears in a complex configuration.  A replica was created, proving how the device works and comparing it against modern lunar and planetary movements with little margin of error.  This analog box does what until recently our modern computers struggled to achieve.  Whomever created this box inadvertently created a puzzle 2100 years later and makes you wonder . . . “What else did he create?”


One Response to History: The Antikythera Mechanism

  1. fencer says:

    I like your angle on this, giving it more of a historical context.

    The more the better on the Antikythera Mechanism!


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