In 1900, Greek sponge divers discovered a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera. The artifacts they came back up with included money, statues, pottery, and various other works of art and craft, as well as a curious lump of bronze and wood that turned out to be by far the most important item onboard. When an archaeologist named Valerios Stais took a look at it two years later, he noticed that the lump had a gear in it. Almost a half-century later, the science historian Derek J. de Solla Price thought this apparently mechanical object might merit further examination, and almost a quarter-century after that, he and the nuclear physicist Charalambos Karakalos published their discovery–made by using X-ray and gamma-ray images of the interior–that those divers had found a kind of ancient computer.
“Understanding how the pieces fit together confirmed that the Antikythera mechanism was capable of predicting the positions of the planets with which the Greeks were familiar — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — as well as the sun and moon, and eclipses,” writes Big Think’s Robby Berman. “It even has a black and white stone that turns to show the phases of the moon.”
Determining how it really worked has required the building of various different models of various different kinds, one of which you can see assembled, operated, and disassembled before your very eyes in the CGI rendering at the top of the post. Its design comes from the work of historian of mechanism Michael T. Wright, who also put together the physical recreation of the Antikythera mechanism you can see him explain just above.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
By its very nature, an artifact as fascinating and as incomplete as this draws all sorts of theories about the specifics of its design, purpose, and even its age. (It dates back to somewhere between 205 and 100 BC.) In 2012, Tony Freeth and Alexander Jones published their own model, different from Wright’s, of this “machine designed to predict celestial phenomena according to the sophisticated astronomical theories current in its day, the sole witness to a lost history of brilliant engineering, a conception of pure genius, one of the great wonders of the ancient world,” — but one which “didn’t really work very well.” Some of the problems has to do with the limitations of ancient Greek astronomical theory, and some with the unreliability of its layers of handmade gears.
More recent research, adds Berman, has discovered that “the device was built by more than one person on the island of Rhodes, and that it probably wasn’t the only one of its kind,” indicating that the ancient Greeks, despite the apparent deficiencies of the Antikythera mechanism itself, “were apparently even further ahead in their astronomical understanding and mechanical know-how than we’d imagined.” Now watch the video just above, in which the Apple engineer makes his own Antikythera mechanism with an entirely more modern set of components, and just imagine what the ancient Greeks could have accomplished had they developed Lego.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.