The Antikythera Time Machine

by Jenny Winder on June 8, 2012

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Antikythera by Marsyas via Wikimedia Commons

Part of the Antikythera Mechanism, by Marsyas via Wikimedia Commons

Leonardo da Vinci may have left behind sketches of helicopters, tanks and submarines but it is rare that we find actual artifacts that seem so way ahead of their time. Almost like a science fiction tale of archaeologists finding a wristwatch buried deep in an Egyptian pyramid or motorcar under the foundations of Stonehenge, we do have an example of a scientific computer that was built between 150 and 100 BC. It was so advanced, nothing as complex would be developed again until the 14th century.

The Antikythera mechanism was lost to the world for centuries. The device was salvaged in 1900 from a ship that sank en route to Rome, in the 1st century BC, between Crete and the island of Antikythera in the Mediterranean. When one of the fragments was discovered to contain a bronze gear wheel, the idea that this was some kind of astronomical clock was dismissed as too fantastic an anachronism. It was not until 1951 that the investigation was picked up by a British science historian Derek J. de Solla Price. So far 82 fragments have been recovered of what is now considered the oldest known astronomical computer.

The device is made of bronze and contains 30 gears though it may have had as many as 72 originally. Each gear was meticulously hand cut with between 15 and 223 triangular teeth, which were the key to discovering the mechanism’s various functions. It was based on theories of astronomy and mathematics developed by Greek astronomers who may have drawn from earlier Babylonian astronomical theories and its construction could be attributed to the astronomer Hipparchus or, more likely, Archimedes the famous Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor and astronomer. Why it was built, or for whom is unknown.

Replica Antikythera Based on the research of Professor Derek de Solla Price, in collaboration with the National Scientific Research Center Demokritos and physicist CH Karakalos. image by Marsyas via Wikimedia Commons

Replica Antikythera Based on the research of Professor Derek de Solla Price, in collaboration with the National Scientific Research Center Demokritos and physicist CH Karakalos. image by Marsyas via Wikimedia Commons

The main front dial showed the 365 day Egyptian year and the Greek signs of the Zodiac and could be adjusted to compensate for the extra quarter day in the solar year. The dial probably bore three hands that marked the date and positions of the Sun and Moon, while a separate mechanism showed the Moon’s phases and it likely also displayed the 5 classically known planets, Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn.

On the back an upper dial showed 19 year Metonic cycle of Moon phases, the 76 year Callippic cycle (four Metonic cycles) and calculated the 4 year Olympic cycle (four games took place in two and four year cycles) The lower dial showed the 18 year 11 days Saros eclipse cycle and the 54 year 33 day Exeligmos or triple saros cycle. It was driven by a hand crank now sadly lost. It is small, compact and portable with full instructions engraved upon it in Greek, about 95% of which have now been deciphered.

The fragile pieces that remain have been examined and modeled using high-resolution X-ray tomography and gamma rays and various reconstructions and replicas have been built. It has even had a working model constructed out of Lego. I can’t helping thinking that Archimedes would have rather liked Lego, if only we could go back in time and give him a set…

Find out more at the  Antikythera Mechanism Research Project

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Science writer at Urban Times URBNFUTR & 21st Floor. Broadcaster on Under British Skies for Astronomy.FM Radio. Amateur Astronomer. Skeptic. Rational Thinker. Science Geek. Music Lover. Harpist. Singer. Book Worm. BSL User. WooBasher. Dangly Earring Wearer. OU Junky

Surly Enigma June 8, 2012 at 1:47 PM

WHOA!!
Now that is awesome.
They should get with LEGO and come out with a box set for sale to the public so we can build our own replica of the Antikythera mechanism.
I personaly know quite a few people that would have no problem plunking down $50 to own one of these, including myself.

Sharon Harnett June 8, 2012 at 2:03 PM

Me too!!

Bertie Seyffert June 8, 2012 at 5:31 PM

Me three!!!

JonHanford June 8, 2012 at 5:57 PM

LEGO has a program where individuals can suggest “future LEGO projects” like an Antikythera kit: http://lego.cuusoo.com/guidelines

All it takes is enough support by others to get a kit approved and, well, it looks like you’ve got several here already.

Dav_Daddy June 9, 2012 at 2:18 AM

If you do be sure to post a link I’d vote for it.

Bertie Seyffert June 8, 2012 at 5:31 PM

Me three!!!

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Kevin Frushour June 9, 2012 at 8:56 AM

If you think a set with that many Legos would cost a mere $50, you haven’t bought a Lego set for a while. :)

krenshala June 11, 2012 at 4:27 PM

Yeah. I like to think of my Lego collection as an investment now. Almost to the point I don’t want my son to play with them (yet). ;)

Bertie Seyffert June 8, 2012 at 5:37 PM

Are there any instructions available for the Lego version? I would be all over that!!

Bertie Seyffert June 8, 2012 at 5:37 PM

Are there any instructions available for the Lego version? I would be all over that!!

Torbjörn Larsson June 8, 2012 at 11:59 PM

It was so advanced, nothing as complex would be developed again until the 14th century.

The Wikipedia article has a nice description of earlier historical accounts and later finds frame an existing technology from ~ 2 400 years back and onwards.

“This evidence that the Antikythera mechanism was not unique adds support to the idea that there was an ancient Greek tradition of complex mechanical technology that was later, at least in part, transmitted to the Byzantine and Islamic worlds, where mechanical devices which were complex, albeit simpler than the Antikythera mechanism, were built during the Middle Ages. … It is possible that this medieval technology may have been transmitted to Europe and contributed to the development of mechanical clocks there.”

Ed David June 9, 2012 at 8:20 AM

I had just selected the same quote to say a similar thing;

“It was so advanced, nothing as complex would be developed again until the 14th century.”

Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say, considering how surprising the finding of the Antikythera mechanism was, that “nothing more complex that we are aware of/ have found…” ?

The existence of this machines suggests the possibility of many more similar and different uses of this technology at and after (and maybe even before??) the same time.

Considering the device is small, portable and with written instructions suggests that it was a tool to travel with. Not some public monument, but a real technological object of use. Perhaps one of many….

I wouldn’t be surprised, how much we have forgotten.

History is only based on what we have found

Torbjörn Larsson June 9, 2012 at 1:42 PM

Nice way of framing the larger context. We can’t test that, but having a technology and, as you note, then some socially established use have implications.

I think paleoanthropologists especially run up against some of these problems (and they are looking at early technology too). I think they have problems to make progress, but at least they may know what they don’t know!

Chandrashekhar June 9, 2012 at 4:14 AM

“brilliant” wouldn’t suffice. to both the ancient greeks who built the original machine and to the scientists and engineers who’ve discovered what it truly is, and the guys behind the lego construction – hats off!

Angeliki Rossolatou June 9, 2012 at 8:19 AM

This amazing artefact is permanently displayed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens and I have had the immense and moving pleasure to visit it many times. Currently there is an exhibition of all its surviving parts in this same Museum (complete with explanatory movies), along with the rest of the findings in the same shipwreck. http://www.namuseum.gr/index-en.html If any of you happen to visit Athens until the 28th of April 2013, don’t miss it!!

Duncan Ivry June 9, 2012 at 4:24 PM

The Antikythera mechanism is a really impressive artefact, combining astronomy, mathematics, and fine mechanics. How far mankind could be today …

Aqua4U June 9, 2012 at 6:49 PM

What a fascinating device! This object opens so many doors including the possibility that there are similar devices out there somewhere (in a shipwreck, tomb or cave?) that have yet to be discovered.

Was this a ‘one off’ machine? I doubt it. I think something this important and useful would have been duplicated many times. In fact, it is entirely possible this artifact is in itself a copy of an even older mechanism?

It is also entirely possible that this mechanism IS a one off creation. That the inventor only had the time and/or materials to build just one…

Does anyone else see a SciFi novel in this?

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Gore Gogore June 11, 2012 at 5:03 AM

Empires based on religion don`t give much chance to evolution of technology. When you get burnt on fire just for saying the Earth is not in the middle of the solar sistem, you don`t have much options. We had 2 millenia of backdown oh the humanity`s evolution. This only says one thing about greek democracy as it was 2000 years ago, and as we see now in our modern world.

Austin Matthew Drone Edmister June 11, 2012 at 6:04 AM

Jo Marchant wrote a really good and informative book about the history of the mechanism’s discovery called “Decoding the Heavens.”

Austin Matthew Drone Edmister June 11, 2012 at 6:04 AM

Jo Marchant wrote a really good and informative book about the history of the mechanism’s discovery called “Decoding the Heavens.”

A.I. M. June 12, 2012 at 7:42 AM

If you like this.. there is an excellent documentary on this machine. Look for The Two Thousand Year Old Computer by BBC.

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