Monday, May 24, 2010

May 17, 1902: Ancient Antikythera Calculating Mechanism Discovered

1902: A diver exploring a shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera, an island between the Greek mainland and Crete, brings up a heavily encrusted mechanism that turns out to be the world’s first known scientific instrument.

The Antikythera mechanism plotted the positions of celestial bodies 19 years into the future — and as an added bonus, it kept track of upcoming Olympics.

"The maker took information about astronomical theories, and made a machine that could predict the future," said Tony Freeth, co-author of a study published in Nature in July 2008. "And it would tell you, as a bit of an add-on, what Olympic games would be in progress at the time."

A dictionary-size assemblage of 37 interlocking dials crafted with the precision and complexity of a 19th-century Swiss clock, the machine has been dated to approximately 150 B.C. The wreck was first discovered in 1900, but its most famous artifact was not brought to the surface until May 17, 1902.

The device captured the world’s imagination. Such craftsmanship wouldn’t be seen for a thousand years after the Greeks — but its purpose was a mystery to 20th-century archaeologists.

Many different researchers took turns investigating the machine and its possible uses. Scientists painstakingly reverse-engineered the mechanism, deciphered the script etched on its housing — the world’s first instruction manual — and pieced the fragments into physical and later digital models, and most recently a working replica.

They determined that the mechanism predicted future positions of the moon and sun, and perhaps other planets. But that’s not all: Freeth and his Antikythera Mechanism Research Project colleagues found a tiny dial labeled with the locations of Olympic competitions.

The feature was probably not integral to its function, said Freeth, but a stylish
demonstration of the machine’s power, not unlike a watch that displays stock prices or an iPhone-enabled speedometer.

"It’s slightly opportunistic in terms of how it’s powered through the gearing. If you wanted to do a dial that turns every four years, it’s easy, but this is at the end of a more complicated gear train. It’s an add-on," said Freeth.

Of course, the mechanism itself was much more significant than a watch or an iPhone: It’s the forerunner of all scientific instrumentation. The Olympics were also of paramount importance to ancient Greeks, who labeled years in relation to ongoing Olympiads and suspended wars for the games’ duration.

Perhaps the mechanism was used to foretell the celestial auspices of competitions, said Freeth, but he’s not convinced.

"We haven’t found anything on the instrument that suggests it was used for astrology, which was suggested in the past," he said. "I think the maker was showing off a huge amount of knowledge and skill. They demonstrated that you could take these theories about how astronomical bodies move, and make a machine that would calculate them. That was a completely revolutionary idea."

Though its functions are understood, said Freeth, its application remains unknown.
"We don’t have any insights into the mind of the designer," he said. "We can only look at the result — and the result is dazzling. You can only admire the person who made it. But I’m not quite sure why they put the Olympics there."

Keim, Brandon. 2010. "May 17, 1902: Ancient Antikythera Calculating Mechanism Discovered". Wired. Posted: May 17, 2010. Available online:

No comments: