Antikythera Mechanism: Ancient Technology Device A ‘Philosopher’s Guide To The Galaxy’

Scientists have failed to find any more of the pieces still missing from the Antikythera Mechanism, one of the most mysterious artifacts of the ancient world and, until recently, thought to be some kind of astronomical computation device. No, the device is somewhat more than that: It can predict eclipses and appears to be a lunar and solar calendar as well. In short, it is mechanical tool for teaching. Scientists believe that the Antikythera Mechanism is a “philosopher’s instructional device.”

As The Atlantic reported June 20, after divers spent more than a year back in 1901, at the site of the Antikythera shipwreck off the Greek island of the same name, a treasure trove of works of art, jewels, and life-sized marble and bronze statues were found along with one of the most odd finds ever — a clock-like device of cogs, plates, and gears made of heavily corroded bronze. Nothing like it had ever been recovered before — or since. And thus was born what The Atlantic dubbed “the most mysterious object in the history of technology.”

The device, which is now housed at Greece’s National Archaeological Museum, became known as the Antikythera Mechanism and, as mentioned, was thought to be some sort of astronomical computation device, built to predict the movement of objects in space. What was left of the device (it now is preserved in three separate pieces) actually hid the answer as to what it was and what it was used for, but it took over a century before scientists had equipment that could explore the extremely delicate Antikythera Mechanism’s inner workings and thus reveal its secrets.

According to CBC News, about 3,500 characters can now be read of what appears to be instructions on the usage of the mechanism. Taking over a decade, using the latest in scanning technology, scientists carefully reconstructed about one-quarter of all the original text. The bad news is that there have been no other pieces of the Antikythera Mechanism found since the 1901 recovery. The good news is that the revealed text on the pieces archaeologists do have provides explanation for what appears to be missing. Combined with the plates and cogs scientists can readily study, researchers were able to ascertain what the device was and how it was used.

In all, Live Science points out, there were 82 pieces of corroded bronze whereon the inscriptions could not be discerned. By using x-ray CT (Computational Tomography) scanning, CT imaging and polynomial texture mapping, researchers were able to piece together the text within the device. The recovered text on the back cover of the Anikythera Mechanism is believed to be something of a “user manual of sorts.”

Researchers refer to the ancient Greek device as a kind of philosopher’s guide to the galaxy, something of an astronomical calculator. It charted the movement of the Earth and Moon, the Sun and the planets, and provided a cosmological calendar of the known universe. And it just might be the world’s oldest mechanical computer. Amazingly enough, it predates anything technologically like it by a thousand years.

Research team member Alexander Jones, a professor of the history of ancient science at New York University, said of the Antikythera Mechanism, “It was not a research tool, something that an astronomer would use to do computations, or even an astrologer to do prognostications, but something that you would use to teach about the cosmos and our place in the cosmos. It’s like a textbook of astronomy as it was understood then, which connected the movements of the sky and the planets with the lives of the ancient Greeks and their environment.”

Jones added, “I would see it as more something that might be a philosopher’s instructional device.”

The revelations concerning the device came after a joint American and Greek archaeological survey conducted from May 22 to June 11 at the site of the Anikythera shipwreck failed to recover any more pieces of the mechanism. However, the survey wasn’t a total loss. As noted by the Associated Press, roughly 60 artifacts, including a bronze spear, which may have been part of a statue, four fragments of marble statues, and a gold ring were discovered.

Sadly, the 2,100-year-old Greek device on display might be all that is left to recover. As noted by The Atlantic, famed explorer Jacques Cousteau took a sieve-like piece of equipment in 1953 and recovered over 300 artifacts at the shipwreck site. However, in using the equipment to lift the objects from the sea bed, the process may have destroyed whatever remained of the extremely fragile Antikythera Mechanism.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]]