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The Antikythera Mechanism

         During the time of the Roman Empire ships returning from Asia Minor (primarily Turkey and Rhodes) to Rome had to pass between the Peloponnesus and Crete. In that path lies the tiny island of Antikythera surrounded by shallow, rocky waters. In 1900 six Greek sponge divers were blown off course between the islands of Crete and Kythera. Using the opportunity of a new and unexplored location they dove for sponges there. In about 140 feet of water off the island of Antikythera they discovered an arm protruding from the sand, and shortly afterwards, the first ancient shipwreck ever found.

         The next year the Greek government sent the divers back for further investigation. This was before diving or breathing equipment was used, so at the end of a year two of the divers had died and one was permanently disabled. What they did find, however, was a badly decomposed ship that had sunk about 80 BC carrying prized works of art, possibly from Rhodes to Rome. In 1902 among the art, amphorae and trading goods archaeologist Valerios Stais discovered, encased in a wooden frame, a "rock" with a gear in it. At the time most experts considered this "clock" to be an anachronism too advanced for the period of the other articles found with it. So for half a century it remained unexamined, until British physicist Derek de Solla Price took an interest in it in 1951. Upon further investigation that caused the wooden frame to disintegrate, the rock turned out to be a heavily corroded and encrusted bronze mechanism. On it was inscribed an extensive instructional manual of which 2160 Greek characters, 95% of the extant text, have now been translated using a 12-ton computerized tomographer constructed around the mechanism. Built about 100 BC with 37-72 gears, it is the oldest known scientific instrument and the world’s first analog computer.

         Of unknown origin, the device may be an orrery/planetarium that predicts eclipses and demonstrates the positions of the Sun, Moon, and the five visible planets. The lower back dial (above left) has 223 divisions (the synodic months in a Saros cycle) and a dial displaying the 54-year Triple Saros or Exeligmos cycle. It has spiral scales for the Metonic (19 yrs/235 months) and Calippic (76 yrs/1016 lunar orbits) cycles. If based on Babylonian astronomy, then that, including mechanical constructs, inspired the Greeks.

         Two possible builders of the device were Hipparchos (190-120 BC) or Archimedes (287-212 BC). The greatest astronomer of antiquity and founder of trigonometry, Hipparchos spent his adult life on Rhodes from which the device may have come (the Moon’s velocity in the device varies according to his theories). In his 1st century BC dialog De re publica Cicero talks about two orrery/planetaria built by Archimedes displaying the motion of the Sun, Moon and five planets brought to Rome after Archimedes’ death at the siege of Syracuse. Pappus of Alexandria (290-350 AD) says Archimedes wrote a manuscript On Sphere Making on these devices possibly lost in the burning of the Library of Alexandria. The early writers Lactantius, Claudian and Proclus also mention Archimedes’ device.

         Among many others, Michael T. Wright, former Curator of Mechanical Engineering, London Science Museum, dedicated much of his life to its study. In 2006 he made a brilliant working model (below) based on linear X-ray tomography creating sectional images, much like a CAT scan of the human body. He proposed that the Sun and Moon could move by Hipparchos’ theories, and that the five visible planets by Apollonius’ theory of epicycles (see pages 30-31).

         Michael T. Wright’s 2006 working model of the Antikythera mechanism, front view. When the handle on the right was turned, the hands on the front representing the Sun, the Moon, and the five visible planets moved, each according to the movement of those bodies. A rotating semi-silvered ball (inner dial @3:00) showed the moon’s phases.

         Michael T. Wright’s 2006 working model of the Antikythera mechanism, back view. The upper spiral dial has 5 turns of 47 divisions each for the 235-month Metonic cycle; the lower spiral dial has 223 divisions for the Saros cycle. A smaller subsidiary dial displays the 54-year exeligmos (Triple Saros) cycle that accurately predicts eclipses, indicating that this was known by at least 100 BC, and probably much earlier to the Babylonians as indicated on their clay tablets.


         Gear train of the Antikythera mechanism used within his 2006 working model, front and back views of which are displayed above.



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© Carl Woebcke: The Antikythera Mechanism, 1991-2017. All rights reserved.