The Antikythera Mechanism Revisited

Over four years ago in a post I explored my fascination with the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient ‘computer’ of the heavens that seemed to explode the accepted knowledge of what the ancients were capable of accomplishing.

antikythera mechanism remains

In 1901, a diver off the Greek isle of Antikythera brought up this corroded mass of metal and gears that immediately began to baffle all who investigated it.

Back in 2006, due to a number of events, there was a renewed spate of interest in the object, especially since its antiquity was recently confirmed by the latest scientific tests and its characteristics discussed in the journal Nature. At that time the dating placed the device as originating sometime around the end of the 2nd Century BC.

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There are two sources of amazement about the Antikythera Mechanism for me: 1) the sheer skill and craft of its manufacture, and 2) the mathematical and abstract concepts it was designed to demonstrate. Both dimensions are beyond what anybody ever conceived as being possible.

One of the scientists investigating the mechanism said, for instance, about one function of the device to calculate the nine-year cycle of the offset circular orbit of the moon that:

antikythera mechanism 250274a“It’s an unbelievably sophisticated idea. I don’t know how they thought of it.” No civilization is thought to have created anything like it for another thousand years.

So have there been any new developments with the Antikythera mechanism since late 2006?

There was a second article about the device in Nature in 2008. The researchers verified that the complex set of gears and wheels could predict eclipses and even the next Olympiad with respect to astronomical cycles….

Hidden inscriptions were found that can only be seen today by x-ray that indicate how months of uneven duration were calculated.

The article concludes:

“The Metonic calendar, the Olympiad Dial and the Saros eclipse prediction scheme add new insights into the sophisticated functions of this outstanding landmark in the history of technology.”

Then Nature published online in 2010 that the mechanism may not be primarily Greek at all but is actually Babylonian in origin, and thus its mystery recedes even further back to the brink of prehistory.

antikytheraechanismThe mechanism did not necessarily show off the Greeks’ understanding of the cosmos, but rather displays a conceptual inheritance that inspired the understanding the Greeks developed, the article says.

You can take a look at what some of the imaging techniques have shown of the mechanism on the Hewlett Packard Labs website.

There are various projects to reconstruct the mechanism. There’s a video of one such project at the Heritage Key history site.

A fellow named Andrew Carol built another version of the device out of Legos

A conference on the mechanism is planned in Athens for the spring of 2011. Until 2012, there will be a series of exhibitions on the Antikythera Mechanism at different locations around the world.

For those interested in more detail on the mechanism and its history, Jo Marchant has written a book on the subject, Decoding the Heavens. Here is a link to an article written by Marchant which summarizes some of the most recent findings.

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