Antikythera mechanism - found 17 May 1902
In 1900 a group of sponge divers blown off course in the Mediterranean discovered an Ancient Greek shipwreck dating from around 70 BC.
Lying unnoticed for months amongst their hard-won haul was what appeared to be a formless lump of corroded rock. It turned out to be the most stunning scientific artefact we have from antiquity. For more than a century this 'Antikythera mechanism' puzzled academics. It was ancient clockwork, unmatched in complexity for 1000 years - but who could have made it, and what was it for? Now, more than 2000 years after the device was lost at sea, scientists have pieced together its intricate workings and revealed its secrets.
In Decoding the Heavens, Jo Marchant tells the full story of the 100-year quest to understand this ancient computer. Along the way she unearths a diverse cast of remarkable characters – ranging from Archimedes to Jacques Cousteau – and explores the deep roots of modern technology not only in ancient Greece but in the Islamic world and medieval Europe too. At heart an epic adventure story, this is a book that challenges our assumptions about technology transfer over the ages while giving us fresh insights into history itself.
29. July 2009 08:42
Thanks to all those who came along to my talk at the Royal Institution last night, it was great to see such a big turnout. As part of the presentation I was lucky enough to be able to show a gorgeous video of the Antikythera mechanism's workings, which judging from the spontaneous applause it received was a highlight for much of the audience. This animation has just been completed by Mogi Vicentini, an Italian astronomer and computer scientist who specialises in making both physical and virtual models of astronomy instruments. Lots of people came up to me afterwards to ask for more information, so here's a link to Mogi's website, with this page dedicated to the Antikythera mechanism. You can download the animation itself from here, this is the recommended hi res version, but if you have trouble running it you could try a lower res version, here.
However much you already know about this 2000-year-old machine, the video really is breathtaking. Based on the physical reconstruction made by curator Michael Wright, it builds up the gear wheels one by one before adding the front and back dials and finally the wooden case, and it gets across the sheer sophistication of the gearing in a way that I have never seen before. So thank you to Mogi!
The Antikythera mechanism (pronounced /ˌæntɪkɪˈθɪərə/ AN-ti-ki-THEER-ə), is an ancient mechanical calculator (also described as the first known mechanical computer) designed to calculate astronomical positions. It was recovered in 1901 from the Antikythera wreck but its complexity and significance were not understood until decades later. It is now thought to have been built about 150–100 BC. Technological artifacts of similar complexity did not reappear until a thousand years later.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau visited the wreck for the last time in 1978, but found no more remains of the Antikythera Mechanism. Professor Michael Edmunds of Cardiff University who led the most recent study of the mechanism said: "This device is just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind. The design is beautiful, the astronomy is exactly right. The way the mechanics are designed just makes your jaw drop. Whoever has done this has done it extremely carefully...in terms of historic and scarcity value, I have to regard this mechanism as being more valuable than the Mona Lisa."
The device is displayed in the Bronze Collection of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, accompanied by a reconstruction made and offered to the museum by Derek de Solla Price. Other reconstructions are on display at the American Computer Museum in Bozeman, Montana and the Children's Museum of Manhattan in New York and in Kassel, Germany.
The Antikythera Celestial Machine: fragments of genius from a legendary science.
From graphical project to mechanical model: a page to tell the story.
July 29, 2009 12:59 PM
World's first computer may be even older than thought
From Swiss Army knives to iPhones, it seems we just love fancy gadgets with as many different functions as possible. And judging from the ancient Greek Antikythera mechanism, the desire to impress with the latest multipurpose must-have item goes back at least 2000 years.
This mysterious box of tricks was a portable clockwork computer, dating from the first or second century BC. Operated by turning a handle on the side, it modelled the movements of the Sun, Moon and planets through the sky, sported a local calendar, star calendar and Moon-phase display, and could even predict eclipses and track the timing of the Olympic games.
I gave a talk on the device at London's Royal Institution last night. One new clue I mentioned to the origin of the mechanism comes from the Olympiad dial - there are six sets of games named on the dial, five of which have been deciphered so far. Four of them, including the Olympics, were major games known across the Greek world. But the fifth, Naa, was much smaller, and would only have been of local interest.
The Naa games were held in Dodona in northwestern Greece, so Alexander Jones of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York has suggested that the mechanism must have been made by or for someone from that area.
Intriguingly, this could mean the device is even older than thought. The inscriptions have been dated to around 100 BC, but according to Jones the device may have been made at latest in the early second century BC, because after that the Romans devastated or took over the Greek colonies in the region, so it's unlikely that people would still have been using the Greek calendar there.
But the highlight for most of the audience - judging from the spontaneous round of applause it received - was this breathtaking new animation (below) of the gearing inside the mechanism. It has been made by Mogi Vicentini, an Italian astronomer and computer scientist, and it brings the device to life brilliantly.
Judge for yourself, but I think it shows that the mechanism would hold its own against the best of today's luxury gadgets.
Jo Marchant is author of Decoding the Heavens, a book about the Antikythera mechanism. It has been shortlisted for the 2009 Royal Society Prize for Science Books, and is out now in paperback.
In October 1900, a team of sponge divers led by Captain Dimitrios Kondos had decided to wait out a severe storm hampering their sail back from Africa on the island of Antikythera, and they began diving for sponges off the island's coastline. Although in years past divers worked naked, by 1900 divers usually wore standard diving dresses — canvas suits and copper helmets — which allowed them to dive deeper and to stay submerged longer.
The first to lay eyes on the shipwreck 60 metres down was Elias Stadiatos, who quickly signaled to be pulled to the surface. He described the scene as a heap of rotting corpses and horses lying on the sea bed. Thinking the diver had gone mad from too much carbon dioxide in his helmet, Kondos himself dove into the water, soon returning with a bronze arm of a statue. Until they could safely leave the island, the divers dislodged as many small artifacts as they could carry.
Together with the Greek Education Ministry and Hellenic Navy, the sponge divers salvaged numerous artifacts from the waters. By the end of 1902, divers had recovered statues of a philosopher's head, a young boy, a discus thrower, the bronze Antikythera Ephebe of ca. 340 BC (now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens), a Hercules, a marble bull and a bronze lyre. Many other small and common artifacts were also found. On 17 May 1902, however, archaeologist Valerios Stais made the most celebrated find. When diving to search the area of the wreck, he noticed that one of the pieces of rock near him had a gear wheel embedded in it. It would soon be identified as the Antikythera mechanism; originally thought to be one of the first forms of a mechanised clock, it is now considered to be the world’s oldest known analog computer.