Antikythera Mechanism: Dates & Function



The Antikythera Mechanism consists of 37 bronze cogs or interlocking geared wheels, fixed together and mounted within a wooden box. it is a sophisticated clockwork machine operated by a single control handle, believed to have been built by ancient Greek scientists sometime between 205 – 87 BCE (an alternative date suggests 70-60 BCE). It is an astronomical and astrological device that charts a 365 day solar calendar, and a 19 year lunar calendar, as well as the position of the sun and moon relative to the positions of the 12 zodiac signs. Sometime before Easter, 1900, a Greek sponge-diver discovered the wreck of an ancient cargo ship of the coast of the island of Antikythera (located northwest of Crete). Divers originally gathered several bronze and marble statues from the site of this wreck, and did not become aware of the significance of the Antikythera Mechanism until May, 1902, when an archeologist finally cognized that what looked like a piece of rock from the wreck apparently contained a ‘cog’. Further examination revealed that the rock was in fact a heavily encrusted and corroded mechanical device constructed of metal parts in a relatively slim wooden frame. This is considered one of the world’s earliest geared devices which has also been referred to as a ‘computer’ due to the bewildering amount of information it conveys. The data about the sun and moon is represented against a background of stars. As the decades went by, the remains of the device were slowly cleaned and analysed, culminating in x-rays and 3D computer mapping, etc. The gear wheels contain ancient Greek script etched into the device which explains its various functions. It originally consisted of several clock-faces and dials, each of which measured the movement of the sun, moon, stars and planets. There was glass or stone orbs which moved across one of the faces of the device to measure the movement of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter in the night sky, as well as a dial which predicted solar and lunar eclipses (and which gave details about the ‘colour’ to be expected). Another dial counted-down the days between regular sporting events on the Greek islands, including the Olympics. A small sphere connected to the cogs turned slowly – revealing the different phases of the moon.  In 2014, a study by Carman and Evans argued for a new dating of approximately 200 BCE premised upon identifying the beginning date on the Saros Dial as the astronomical lunar month that began shortly after the new moon of April 28th, 205 BCE. The shipwreck the Antikythera Mechanism was found within, is thought to be Roman and date to the second quarter of the 1st century BCE. Although extraordinary and constructed well before such devices were thought possible, acadremics suggest the mechanism was not particularly accurate for two reasons. The first reason is the inadequacy of the Greek theory at the time of its construction (the Antikythera Mechanism assumes a geocentric model), and the second reason is that the gear set-up was not very precise (there was too much ‘give’ in the design). However, despite these considerations, it is astonishing to see a machine more likely to have existed in relatively modern times (created through the processes of modern industry and division of labour), being produced within ancient Greece by minds enthused with a new way of logically interpreting the world. Like any mechanical device, the Antikythera Mechanism could well have been developed as time went by and understanding increased, but this does not seem to be the case. The ability to make machines of this type either did not catch on at the time (perhaps the product of a lone genius), or was lost for some reason. Whatever the case, humanity would have to wait for over a thousand years before such ingenuity was attempted again.

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