Antikythera Mechanism (Part I)

I attempted to record what I heard in one of the episodes of Ancient Discoveries series called the Antikythera mechanism as I’m wholly intrigued by this magic and incredible device that was invented over two thousand years ago.

Here goes the text.

Human civilization has come a long way over the last two and a half thousand years. This ancient classical world must have been a much different place to our modern age. A time when life is much simpler, a time without the stresses of modern life, in a world without computers and information technology, but we may soon have to change our biased view of the ancient world. Clues from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea set the view this was a world more advanced than we could ever imagine.

In ancient discoveries, we will travel back to ancient times to discover the amazing ancient routs of technologies we’d like to think of as modern. New researches begin to suggest that many of the inventions of the last two hundred years may in fact have already been known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Much of what we recently discovered, we may in fact just rediscover. “The Greeks and Romans are also intensely practical people. Many of the things which they devised, planned and invented preceded by two thousand years, think as we’d like to think of, as modern,” said Dr. Christopher Kelly, from University of Cambridge.

At the heart of the story of ancient achievement, lies a mysterious and arcane machine, one so complex that many have to refuse to believe it could be built by the ancient Greeks. Hidden for centuries beneath the Mediterranean Sea, encased in thick corrosion, it remained an enigma until twentieth century science glimpsed inside. What they saw inside astonished them—a massive gears and cogs, a machine. But what it was for? And who had created it?

For a hundred years, it has been a riddle which intrigued but baffled those who tried to understand the mysterious object, known as the Antikythera Mechanism. But now, finally, its story can be told.

That story began just over one hundred years ago in the year 1900. It was early spring when Captain Kondos and his crew of sponge divers found themselves sheltering from a storm miles off course by the little Greek island of Antikythera. As the weather cleared, the captain decided to make the most of his unplanned stop by diving in the deep clear water of the island. The water was deep, some 200 feet, but then the deep water was where the best sponges were found. But so far down, there was always the danger a diver might return to the surface with the notorious bends. Once in the water, the diver started his first decent. But what awaited him on the bottom were not sponges. As he looked around, he saw what appeared to be a dead body scattered in all directions. Terrified, he quickly signaled to be pulled back to the boat. Some thought the diver mad, perhaps he had the bends. But the truth was far far stranger than that.

Two thousand years ago, another ship assailed these waters, on its way from Rhodes, to deliver a precious cargo to a wealthy Roman citizen. Just like the sponge divers, the ship has also been caught in a storm. She too was driven far from her course, to the island Antikythera. But this ship was not destined to survive. Here she sank, and here she still lay. Captain Kondos sent another diver to investigate the wild story of dead bodies. What had at first appeared to be dead bodies were in fact the most beautiful marble and bronze statues imaginable, the remnant of that ancient wreck. Along with the statues, other treasures such as decorated Greek vases and jewelry were winched to the surface. It was the finest of the decade, perhaps the century, and the breathtaking statues made front page news. One of the most perfect bronzes recovered was named the Antikythera youth. The piece was universally acknowledged as a work of genius. It did clearly belong to a Roman of exquisite test and fantastic wealth, a Roman destined for disappointment, as this cargo never arrived. Along with the youth, a find known as the Philosopher’s Head were the highlights of the wreck. Two faces had not been seen the other world for over two thousand years. But the greatest work of the genius from the wrecks still lay unrecognized. This rusting lump of corrosion held the key to one of the greatest periods in human history, the Hellenistic period, and perhaps the greatest achievement of that time.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Two and a half thousand years ago the Mediterranean was the place where science, philosophy and art flourished. The Greeks, known as Hellenes, were living in what many regarded as Golden Age. They invented democracy, opened up the fields of mathematics and science, and introduced the world philosophy. They were inquisitive and inventive, no difference in many ways from us today. In trying to understand their world, they had created this strange machine. All the twenty-first century descendant had to do was to work out what they had created for. Part of the answer lay far from Antikythera, in a London museum display case.

Twenty years ago Michael Wright, curator of engineering at the Science Museum in London, came upon another mysterious ancient mechanical device. Although much less complex, there were similarities with the Antikythera Mechanism.

“We call this the Byzantine sundial calendar,” said the curator, “we think it dates from about 500 A.D.”

Byzantine Sundial Calendar, by M.T. Wright, London

It appears to be sundial, which is also a mechanical calendar. It shows the passing of the days, indicated by the age of the Moon within a month. The gear wheels look surprisingly modern. Complicated mathematics and detailed knowledge of astronomy would have been necessary to create such an object. Michael Wright decided to build a model of the device to explore how it would work. The model shows the position of the Sun and Moon within the Zodiac at any given date, as well as the age of the Moon.

Byzantine Sundial Calendar, model by M. T. Wright

When the letter appears to be letter Α, the device correspondingly shows a black disk for the Moon. As the wheel is turned day by day until the letter Ο appears, the disk turns to a fully shining one indicating the full Moon and so forth. The other two dials show the Moon and the Sun going around the Zodiac. “The instrument is much simpler than the Antikythera Mechanism,” said the curator, “but what is exciting about it is to find another instrument very obviously in Hellenistic tradition, because the Greek lettering, and also have gear wheels. So now we have not just one mechanism that tells us the Greeks had gears, we have two. We’ve doubled the evidence.”

Although similar, it is estimated that the sundial calendar only had 8 gear wheels, while the Antikythera Mechanism had at least 29, allowing for much more complicating calculations. Could the Antikythera Mechanism be a mechanical calendar as well? One many times more complicated than the Byzantine machine, yet over six hundred years older. But in an age supposedly without machines and modern technology, who could have created such a device? They would have to be expert both in mathematics and engineering, a genius, centuries, perhaps even millennia ahead of that time. One man who fitted that description, was Archimedes, the most respective mathematician and inventor of his age.

Archimedes lived during the Hellenistic period in a Greek city state Syracuse on what is today Sicily, off the coast of Italy. During his life time, the Mediterranean was a turbulent war-torn place, a world in which his talent for military invention was put to good use by both his follow Greeks, and the aggressive new power of Roma, that was slowly spreading its tentacles across the Mediterranean. Today, he is perhaps best remembered for the revolutionary invention known as the Archimedes screw, used to move water or seeds uphill. But Archimedes was also fascinated by other difficult mechanical problems, such as how to accurately measure distances. The greatest challenge of all, however, was to solve the puzzle of what cause the rising and setting of the Sun, the changing seasons, and the strange movement of the Moon and planets. What, in short, were the mechanics of time?

Many years earlier, Archimedes traveled across the Mediterranean to the most cultural centre of the Hellenistic world—Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria was the most sophisticated place on Earth, founded by Alexander the Great. It was now ruled by the descendant of one of his generals, Greek soldiers, who were reasoned to become pharaohs. It was a unique place, the meeting point of the age-old civilizations of the Mediterranean, a city of Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Persians. Here they combined the wisdom of the Pharaohs with the brilliance of the Greek philosophy to create the intellectual power house of the ancient world. And it was here that the young Archimedes was inspired by the work of a mechanical genius, called Ctesibius. He would have a simple but brilliant idea that would literally change time forever.

Who was Ctesibius? Stay tune, I’ll introduce him in Part II. To be continuous…

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Antikythera Mechanism (Part I)

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