New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
You couldn’t Twitter on it, but as an astronomical device the “world’s first computer”, the Antikythera Mechanism, found in a Roman shipwreck that sank off the island of Antikythera about 65 B.C., provides extraordinary evidence of mind-boggling technological sophistication available in some parts of the Hellenistic and Greco-Roman world.
It makes it necessary to rewrite the history and evolution of early technology.
This mysterious ancient artifact, found by sponge divers 60 meters down, is unmatched in complexity, the most sophisticated device from the ancient world, dates from 150-100 B.C. and has the earliest known manufactured gears.
For at least a thousand years, there was no device of comparable complexity until at least a thousand years later, when a water clock was invented in China. And 15 more centuries passed before the Europeans began to build geared clocks.
“With the Antikythera Mechanism we have to realize the history and the evolution of technology. It is a unique instrument that managed to put into practice the theoretical knowledge of the ancient Greeks, in particular the astronomers, in a geared mechanism… and this is fantastic,” said Astrophysicist Dr. John Hugh Seiradakis of John Hugh Seiradakis, Professor of Astronomy, Aristotle University of
Thessaloniki, a member of The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, who together with Tom Malzbender, Senior Research Scientist, Hewlett-Packard (HP) Laboratories, unveiled the secrets of the mechanism in Astronomical Computers in Antiquity? The Antikythera Mechanism, a lecture at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York on May 25.
There was an air of excitement at the lecture as images were shown of how the mechanism looked after being submerged for 2,000 years in the Aegean Sea, corroded into what seemed to be a mass of oxidized bronze — its original function totally unrecognizable — and images of the ancient writing revealed by the Hewlett-Packard team’s astounding high resolution imaging systems and three-dimensional X-ray tomography. 3,000 characters, 2,200 more than originally known were deciphered from layers one-tenth of a millimeter to one millimeter, whose style made it possible date the mechanism. The inscriptions appear to relate to planetary and lunar motions, and possibly also had gearings to predict the positions of known planets.
The Antykithera Mechanism, known to model astronomical phenomenon with remarkable detail, is the earliest known device to contain an intricate set of possibly 37 hand-cut bronze gear wheels. Mr. Malzbender pointed out “a pin-and-slot device connecting two gear-wheels which “induced variations in the representation of lunar motions according to the Hipparchos model of the Moon’s elliptical orbit around Earth.”
The mechanism, which is about the size of a bread box, calculates the positions of the sun and moon every day and every hour, determines the time of lunar and solar eclipses, describes the motion of the moon in accordance with Kepler’s Law, holds a perfectly accurate 76-year calendar, and designates the time of the Olympic Games. It is thought to have been used in preparing calendars for planting and harvesting and fixing religious festivals.
The numbers of teeth in the gears dictated the functions of the mechanism, said Mr. Malzbender, the 53-tooth count of certain gears is powerful confirmation of the proposed model of Hipparchos’ lunar theory.” Certain evidence suggests that the ship may have come from Rhodes; it is speculated that Hipparchos, who lived on Rhodes, might have had a hand in designing the device.
One of the reasons the discovery of a mechanism like this from ancient times is astonishing, is that ancient Greece was known for its philosophers and mathematicians, and geometry and architecture was very advanced, says Dr. Seidarakis — whose interest in and dedication to his work is palpable — but very few dealt with technology. “There were a few, for example Archimedes and Chiron, but nothing similar to this device was constructed for the next sixteen centuries, the next similar device was the Prague clock. Surprisingly, however, the clock is not as complicated as the Antikythera Mechanism.”
The obvious question, it seems, is why was such an important invention lost? There are a few possible reasons, says Seiradakis, who suggests that here may have been other mechanisms that were lost in shipwrecks, or were recycled, as bronze was a very important metal at and was recycled quite often. “Or maybe the person that actually thought about it and made it, died…such a complicated device needed a genius and he may have transferred the knowledge to some of his students who perhaps were not able to understand it… another reason might have been that the Romans invaded Greece, and as you know, the bird does not sing as nicely or as loudly in a cage; philosophy and science need freedom.”
The other members of The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project core team are leading astronomer Mike Edmunds, mathematician Tony Freeth (University of Cardiff, UK), physicist Yannis Bitsakis (University of Athens), and philologist and palaeographer Agamemnon Tselikas (National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation).
Earlier examinations of the instrument, mainly in the 1970s by Derek J. de Solla Price, a Yale historian who died in 1983, led to similar findings, but they were generally disputed or ignored.
The Antikythera Mechanism is now housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
A replica of the mechanism, the newest reconstruction, the first of its kind in America, commissioned exclusively for and belonging to the museum, was presented at the opening of the Gods, Myths and Mortals: Discover Ancient Greece exhibition at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan in 2007. It was created by Dionisios Kriaris in collaboration with Dr. Xenophon Moussas, Director of the Astrophysics Laboratory of the University of Athens and The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project team. It will be on view through September.
Among the distinguished guests were: Captain Achilles Anastasopoulos, Military Advisor, Permanent Mission of Greece to the United Nation, Dr. Alexander Jones, Professor, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University, Dr. Darrell Rutkin, Visiting Scholar Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University, Stevens Institute of Technology professors and group of students, and Dan Kershaw, Metropolitan Museum of Art.