Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Antikythera mechanism

In 1900, divers searching for sea sponges off the coast of Antikythera Island (northwest of Crete) made a startling discovery. The hull of an ancient ship was found, and it was filled with beautiful statues of marble and bronze.

An expedition was made to salvage everything on board the ship, with special focus on the works of art. It wasn't until a couple of years later that archaeologists got around to examining what they considered to be lesser artifacts. Then they realized that one of them contained cog wheels.

Controversy erupted over the find, which turned what we thought we knew about world history on its ear. Mainstream science, faced with something that made them wrong, did what they've always done: they ignored the anomaly.

It wasn't until 1958 that someone finally took the Antikythera mechanism seriously. Dr. Derek de Solla Price from Yale University mounted a full-scale investigation and restoration of the device. Originally, the device seems to have been built around 150 B.C. in a wooden box with inscriptions that contained an extremely accurate astronomical calendar. Inside it were twenty cog wheels and, even more stunning, differential gears (neither of which had been previously thought to exist at that time). Price wrote:

"Nothing like this instrument is preserved elsewhere. Nothiing comparable is known from any ancient scientific text or literary allusion. On the contrary, from all we know of science and technology in the Hellenistic Age, we should have felt that such a device could not exist."

Price also speculated that the item may have once been on public display on the isle of Rhodes. Wikipedia says:

The island was known for its displays of mechanical engineering, particularly automata, which apparently were a specialty of the Rhodians. Pindar, one of the nine lyric poets of ancient Greece, said this of Rhodes in his seventh Olympic Ode:

"The animated figures stand
Adorning every public street
And seem to breathe in stone, or
Move their marble feet."

On 31 July 2008, a paper providing further details about the mechanism was published in Nature (Nature Vol 454, Issue 7204, July 31, 2008). In this paper, among other revelations, it is demonstrated that the mechanism also contained a dial divided into four parts, and demonstrating a four-year cycle through four segments of one year each, which is thought to be a means of describing which of the games (such as the ancient Olympics) that took place in two and four-year cycles were to take place in any given year.

A working reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism has been built (see image above) for the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, by Robert J. Deroski.

Visit the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project for the latest info on this amazing anomalous device which completely and utterly validifies Steampunk as a philosophical precept and not just an RPG/clothing/decor fad.

1 comment:

  1. And if there was this one, there probably are others, somewhere out there. And who knows what else they had back then that we still haven't found yet...