the antikythera device

a marvel of ancient greek culture, the complete functionality of the antikythera device continues to be the subject of speculation a hundred years after its discovery and tests the limits of modern science to decipher it, but all who studied it pretty much agree - it is still amazing

A hundred years ago sponge divers were waiting out a storm off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera where they discovered a shipwreck from 70BC. They retrieved what they could including what seemed to be a lump of corroded metal. That formless lump turned out to be one of the most stunning scientific artifacts of ancient times, a clockwork mechanism that has until recently, confounded academics since its discovery.

Virtual Reconstruction

The Antikythera mechanism is a 2000 year old mechanical analog computer designed to calculate astronomical positions. Its significance and complexity have taken decades to comprehend. Technological artifacts of similar complexity and workmanship did not reappear until the 14th century, when mechanical astronomical clocks were built in Europe.

The mechanism, constructed by Greek astronomers based upon theories of astronomy and mathematics from Babylonian arithmeticprogression cycles was intended to predict lunar and solar eclipses. Inscriptions revealed through sophisticated imaging technologies, including high resolution surface scans and computerized x-ray tomography support suggestions of mechanical display of planetary positions, now lost. Regarding the use of modern imaging technology, Derek De Solla Price, a researcher noted in 1974, that the inscription on one of the dials is “almost illegible’, reading only 180 characters. The CT images produced by X-Tek, viewed at various angles, enabled the research project to read 932 characters.

The largest fragment found contains 32 gears. Its use of a differential gear to subtract the sidereal motion of the sun from that of the moon to produce the synodic month, the cycle of the phases of the moon, is remarkable and represents the first example of such gearing yet discovered. In 200BC, Hipparchos developed a theory to explain the irregularities of the Moon’s motion across the sky caused by its elliptic orbit. We find a mechanical realization of this theory in the gearing of the mechanism. The mechanism was also used in conjunction with the Olympic games and has references to specific games on its dials.

Jacques Cousteau visited the wreck for the last time in 1978. 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."

A reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism.
Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty

For more complete information and detailed academic explanations and research data, please visit The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project.

An amazing 3D virtual model of the device by Massimo Mogi Vicentini. The model is fitted with planets, according to the research and the mechanical reconstruction by Michael Wright one of the principal researchers. The full version can be found on his Antikythera project page.

The first in a two-part documentary from Nature Magazine

Part two of the Nature Magazine documentary

Hublot is releasing at the moment an interpretation of the Antikythera mechanism in a wrist watch. Here is a video documenting the development of the watch.

Ludwig Oechslin of watchmaker, Ochs & Junior, made his own interpretation of the antikythera mechanism in 2008. More on the Ochsenblog

A reproduction of the Antikythera Mechanism was made using LEGOs by Andrew Carol, who has a passion for mechanical devices and Lego. His project is hosted on the website of Steve Wozniak, one of the founders of Apple, Inc. and there is a Wired Magazine article about it.

A KMZ file of the shipwreck location for Google Earth.

Decoding the Heavens, a book about the project by Jo Marchant

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