Lying on the western edge of the Aegean Sea between the island of Crete and the Greek mainland, the discovery of the mysterious mechanical machine from Antikythera has become famous as one of the world’s most astonishing archaeological finds. Since its discovery on the sea floor in 1901, this mystery has befuddled scientists, archaeologists, engineers and scholars, defying explanation for over a century.
The Antikythera Mechanism, dated to between 150 and 100 BC, would come to challenge our understanding of ancient technology, revealing an unexpected depth to ancient Greek engineering and scientific prowess.
So what is the Antikythera device? History suggests such advanced scientific knowledge wasn’t known for another ten centuries, so how did the ancient Greeks manage to create a machine with such a high level of precision and complexity?
Other questions about the Antikythera Mechanism remain. Who built it? What was it doing on a ship? What was the purpose of what some call the ‘Antikythera computer’? The most advanced artefact of its kind from the ancient world has left the world baffled since the story came to light. Here’s a dive into the waters of technological enlightenment in an attempt to shed light on a truly curious conundrum.
What is the Antikythera Mechanism?
The machine from Antikythera is, at its core, a computational device. It’s believed the primary function was to simulate the trajectories and phases of celestial bodies. It’s thought that the Antikythera Mechanism performed complex astronomical calculations, which could predict solar and lunar eclipses, the Moon’s phases, and potentially the positions of some planets.
With its elaborate system of gears and dials, the device could predict lunar and solar eclipses, track the path of the Moon, and even recreate its irregular orbit using a sophisticated differential gear—a concept that would not be seen again for over a thousand years.
Fashioned from bronze, it exists today in approximately eighty fragmented pieces, which were recovered from the shipwreck. The largest and most studied fragments are labelled Fragment A, Fragment B, Fragment C, and Fragment D.
The Antikythera Mechanism is believed to have had at least thirty gears, though some researchers and engineers think there may have been more. These gears interacted in a sophisticated way to simulate the movement of celestial bodies.
The largest gear, known as the main gear, had 223 teeth and is closely linked with the Saros cycle, a period of eighteen years, eleven days, and eight hours which was associated with the prediction of eclipses. It’s important to note that while many experts agree, its direct connection to the Saros cycle is not universally acknowledged.
Another essential gear is the Metonic gear, named after the Metonic cycle, which is almost exactly nineteen years long and used to predict the dates of lunar phases. The Antikythera device also has the Callippic gear, associated with the Callippic cycle of seventy-six years, and a gear for the Olympiad cycle of four years, related to the Olympic Games.
One of the most illuminating discoveries was the presence of inscriptions on the Antikythera Mechanism, which researchers suggest act as a sort of instruction manual. About 3,500 characters of text have been deciphered from the device. These inscriptions provided – and continue to provide – valuable information on the mechanism’s functions, revealing, for instance, the names of the months used and the names of the celestial bodies tracked. Some inscriptions indicate the presence of a planetarium display on the front face of the mechanism, showing the positions of the Sun, Moon, and possibly the known planets.
Dials & Displays
On the front, there was a large circular display that showed the zodiac and the Egyptian calendar. This was likely where the user could see the positions of the Sun, Moon, and possibly the planets. On the reverse, there were at least two spiral dials. One tracked the Saros cycle and had pointers for indicating lunar and solar eclipses. The other spiral likely tracked the Callippic cycle. There was also a smaller dial that tracked the Olympiad cycle.
Was the Antikythera Device a Computer?
While the Antikythera Mechanism can generally be seen as a computational device, it’s a far cry from what we think of today as being a computer in the modern sense. It was not electric, and had no circuit boards or microchips which form the core of modern computers.
However, the Mechanism had a series of more than 30 gears that interlocked and moved in precise ways to simulate celestial movements. This complex gearing system was essentially the “algorithm” or “software” of the device, predetermining its calculations.
A user could set a particular date using a hand-crank, and the device would then show the celestial phenomena for that date. This input-output process is akin to entering data into a modern computer and getting a result.
The mechanism provided visual outputs in the form of dials and pointers, similar to how modern computational devices provide digital or analog readouts.
So while not a computer in the sense of our modern understanding, it’s arguable that the Antikythera Mechanism was indeed an ancient computational device and adhered to the basic principles of computation.
What was the Antikythera Device Used For?
While the exact purpose of the Antikythera Mechanism might never be fully known, the consensus is that it was a multi-functional device, blending scientific calculation with cultural significance in a manner that showcases the achievements of the ancient Greek world.
The mechanism is thought to have been an advanced calendar which could track and predict celestial events with accuracy. The front face likely displayed the positions of the Sun and Moon in the zodiac. Along with the phase of the Moon, and given its alignment with cycles like the Saros and Metonic cycles, it could predict lunar and solar eclipses, which were significant events for ancient civilisations both scientifically and culturally. It might have also tracked the positions of the five planets known to the Greeks: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Indeed this raises another important question. Did the ancient Greeks know more about astronomy than known ancient sources have led the world to believe?
While primarily scientific, the ability of the machine from Antikythera to predict celestial events means it may have also served astrological purposes. Eclipses, planetary movements, and lunar phases had deep cultural and religious significance in the ancient world. Being able to predict these events would be valuable for religious ceremonies, decision-making, and event planning.
The Antikythera Mechanism might have been used as a teaching tool. With its intricate gearing and detailed inscriptions, it’s a comprehensive representation of Greek astronomical knowledge. Teachers or scholars might have used it to demonstrate and explain celestial mechanics, cycles, and phenomena.
Some researchers have suggested that devices like the Antikythera Mechanism could have had navigational uses. It’s well known that mariners in the ancient world used the Moon and stars to navigate. While the mechanism itself might have been too delicate and complex for direct use on a voyage, the knowledge it encapsulated and the predictions it could make might assist in planning and navigation.
Social & Cultural Significance
Tracking the Olympiad cycle associated with the Olympic Games indicates the device could also have had socio-cultural applications. It may have aided the tracking of significant events, festivals, or games, which were essential elements of Greek society.
Given the sophistication and likely high cost of the Antikythera computer, ownership might have been restricted to the elite. Possessing such a remarkable device would be a symbol of wealth, education, and cultural sophistication. It’s conceivable that it was a prized possession of someone of significant status or was being transported as a gift.
Who Built the Antikythera Mechanism?
The creator of the Antikythera device remains a subject of intense debate and speculation among historians. Given its complexity and sophistication, it’s believed that the device was the product of collective knowledge, rather than the work of a single individual.
Perhaps the most famous name associated with the construction of the device is Archimedes. Antikythera device history suggests that he built similar machines, one of which was brought to Rome. However, it’s worth noting that the Antikythera Mechanism is dated to a period slightly after Archimedes’ death. So, while he might not have built the mechanism himself, it’s possible that his work and inventions influenced its design or that it was built by someone in the tradition of Archimedean engineering.
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Other prominent names associated with the Antikythera computer include Hipparchus, a Greek astronomer who proposed theories relating to the movement of the Moon, and Posidonius, a Rhodian scholar who’s believed to have created, or been involved with the creation, of similarly complex mechanical devices.
While Archimedes and other luminaries of the era are intriguing possibilities, it’s essential to understand that concrete evidence linking the mechanism to a specific individual or workshop remains elusive. The true origins of the Antikythera Mechanism is one of the great mysteries of the ancient world.
Why was the Antikythera Computer on a Ship?
The presence of the Antikythera Mechanism on a shipwreck provides another layer to the mystery surrounding this ancient device. While there is no definitive answer to why it was on a ship, several theories have been proposed based on the context of the find and what is known about ancient Greek history around this time, including:
- It was being traded or sold to a rich buyer or patron in another city.
- It was a gift for a ruler, wealthy individual, or important institution.
- It was being taken to a place of learning to teach astronomy and astrology.
- It was being taken to a place to plan religious ceremonies based on celestial events.
- It belonged to someone and it was simply being brought to them.
Perhaps the ship’s route and intended destination offered clues as to why it was onboard. Some believe it was travelling from the Eastern Mediterranean, possibly Rhodes or Asia Minor, and heading west, potentially to Rome or another major city in the Western Mediterranean.
While the exact reason the Antikythera Mechanism was on the ship remains speculative, its presence among a cargo of valuable items suggests that it was considered a significant possession even in antiquity.
The Legacy and Mystique of the Antikythera Mechanism
The world’s first analogue computer, as it has become known and long debated, stands as a testament to the boundless curiosity and remarkable ingenuity of the ancient Greeks.
But one of the most tantalising questions that lingers, is, was the Antikythera device unique? Given the expertise required to construct such a device and the significance it likely held, it’s hard to imagine that only one was ever made. The ancient world was replete with scholars, inventors, and craftsmen. If there was knowledge and demand for one such mechanism, it stands to reason that there might have been others.
Perhaps in the bustling workshops of Rhodes, Alexandria, or Athens, similar devices were made, their gears turning in synchrony with the heavens. Yet, as of now, the depths of the ocean have yielded only one.
Until further discoveries come to light, the Antikythera Mechanism remains a singular marvel—a beacon of ancient wisdom that beckons modern minds to unravel its celestial secrets.