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September 24, 2002
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In 1900 a sponge diver called Elias Stadiatos discovered the wreck of an ancient merchant ship off the tiny island of Antikythera near Crete. The corbita, dating from the first century B.C., was heavily laden with treasure of all kinds, original bronze life-size statues, marble reproductions of older works, jewelry, wine, fine furniture and one immensely complicated scientific instrument. The Antikythera mechanism was originally housed in a wooden box about the size of a shoebox with dials on the outside and a complex clockwork assembly of gears inscribed and configured to produce solar and lunar positions in synchronization with the calendar year. By rotating a handle on its side, its owner could read on its front and back dials the progressions of the lunar and synodic months over four-year cycles. The device has been estimated to be accurate to 1 part in 40,000. (more inside...)
posted by lagado (15 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

The bronze gearing, remarkable enough in its own right, also contains a further innovation that would not be reinvented until the 19th century, the differential gear. The differential was used to calculate the phases of the moon by subtracting the moon's motion from that of the sun's. This level of sophistication allows us to say without fear of exaggeration that the Antikythera mechanism was an early kind of analog computer.

The device is also thought by some to have been able to model the motion of the five planets using the epicyclical model of planetary movement around a fixed earth devised by Apollonius of Perga and Hipparchus of Rhodes (later superceded by the heliocentric model of Copernicus).

It's been said that the Antikythera mechanism actually dropped and sank twice. The second submersion came after a comprehensive analysis of Antikythera mechanism was done by Derek de Solla Price (see Scientific American June 1959 and Gears from the Greeks: the Antikythera Mechanism: a Calendar Computer from ca. 80 B.C. 1975). Since then surprisingly little scholarly attention has been paid to what is surely the most exciting relic of advanced ancient technology that we have in our possession. After one hundred years, our estimation of the scientific and technology of the ancient Greeks needs to be be seriously revised.

"Suppose a traveller carried into Scythia or Britain the orrery recently constructed by our friend Poseidonius, which at each revolution reproduces the same motions of the sun, the moon, and the five planets that take place in the heavens every day and night, would any single native doubt that this orrery was the work of a rational being?" -- Cicero
posted by lagado at 11:07 PM on September 24, 2002 [1 favorite]

... one might reason-ably date the wreck more closely as 65 B.C. ±15 years

Wow! This is absolutely amazing. Thanks for pointing it out so thoroughly lagado.
posted by riffola at 11:36 PM on September 24, 2002

This is fascinating, but I'm reluctant to give it sweeping new importance. There are a number of problems. First, the device was reconstructed largely by conjecture. I trust that the analysis was in good faith, but it would be interesting if there were another analysis by other experts, particularly as regards some of the trickier parts. Second, this is the only surviving example. If it were more than a curiosity, and of such great value as described, it would be thought to have found its way into the literature of the day and imitated or copied. We can assume that it was kept a secret: naval maps were state secrets to the Spanish and Portuguese, and the measurement of longitude by British ships is a famous example of naval technology with importance perhaps unmatched. Still, such developments were known and copied in a relatively brief period. If this device were succesful and useful technology, Rhodes should have had a similar success attested to by history. Third, if it was lost, why was it not reconstructed? The whole suggests that it was less an example of technology than of tinkering. In the case of longitude, a scientifically self-trained watchmaker managed to create through trial and error over a lifetime a usable device; but he also understood enough of the technology and underlying principles that his device was able to be reproduced and serve as a template for other advances.

This is a sort of chicken and egg problem. One can have an idea, as did Leonardo with flight (or many other problems), but without the support of a surrounding technologically and industrially advanced civilization, one's ideas are mere whistles in the wind. I think it's a stretch to draw conclusions about Rhodian or Greek civilization on the basis of a single artifact.
posted by dhartung at 11:44 PM on September 24, 2002

If it were more than a curiosity, and of such great value as described, it would be thought to have found its way into the literature of the day and imitated or copied.

Dhartung, the Scientific American link, in the last three paragraphs, addresses this question, suggesting that later Islamic clockwork invention used this as a foundation.
posted by taz at 12:51 AM on September 25, 2002

(long time no see, lagado. welcome back from wherever you've been, and thanks for the groovy post.)
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:37 AM on September 25, 2002

Thanks, lagado, great post. Another example of why recording history is important as your not re-inventing the wheel every century. Also dhartung, you pointed out something I've wondered. If man invents something is it always human nature to turn it into a business venture by manufacturing it for others and profiting from it? Thus not patenting it and making it available for the public because you could care less about the monetary value then it becomes an unknown invention.

Also an interesting wonder from this thread, is weather man used calculus & physics back then like we use simple math in everyday life? I feel that past men were more knowledgeable overall. How is that, well not that long ago I could use a slide-ruler faster than my friends with a calculator in high school. Yet now I can get a scientific calculator for about $15 which is faster than me but it shows my laziness. My laziness by using a calculator would turn into me forgetting the fundamental thinking process and create the loss of knowledge for me to pass on to future generations. The use of technology is great but forgetting the basic mechanics can make man seem less knowledgeable than past generations of men. I don't think man was uncivilized as we think when it comes to science and mathematics as this thread shows it.
posted by thomcatspike at 6:15 AM on September 25, 2002

All good points, Dan.

There are a number of tantalizing references to devices like this in the classical literature and this makes it reasonable to argue that it was not the only one of its type but the lack of other examples certainly is a thorny problem.

The quote from Cicero at the end of my post mentions another made by his friend and teacher Poseidonius of Rhodes. Cicero also reports that the general Marcellus prized an orrery made by Archimedes more than any other booty captured from the sacking of Syracuse. Fragmentary mentions of automatic devices appear in the writings of Ctesibius (200 - 270 B.C.), Vitruvius (ca 25 B.C.) and Hero of Alexandria (ca 62 A.D.). As taz mentioned, Price in his Scientific American article refers to Arab examples which appear to have drawn on Greek prototypes.

As for the lack other mechanisms to serve as examples, the gears of the Antikythera mechanism were made of a bronze that had a very high copper content (95%) and this is something that corrodes with time. Its burial at sea rapidly oxidized the metal and helped to preserve it for the present day and this may help to partly explain its rarity. I'll agree that the problem of a lack of other examples still remains though.

Finally, other interpretations and/or refinements to Price's original analysis can be found here: 1 2 3

(thanks Stavros very much for the warm welcome. I've been, you know, around)
posted by lagado at 7:00 AM on September 25, 2002


...The second sphere, which Marcellus kept for himself, was much more ingenious and original. It was a planetarium: a mechanical model which shows the motions of the sun, moon, and planets as viewed from the earth.

Cicero writes that Archimedes must have been "endowed with greater genius that one would imagine it possible for a human being to possess" to be able to build such an unprecedented device.

Many other ancient writers also refer to Archimedes' planetarium in prose and in verse. Several viewed it as proof that the cosmos must have had a divine creator: for just as Archimedes' planetarium required a creator, so then must the cosmos itself have required a creator. Cicero reverses the argument to contend that since the cosmos had a divine creator, so then must Archimedes be divine to be able to imitate its motions.

The Greek mathematician Pappus of Alexandria, who lived in the fourth century AD, writes that Archimedes wrote a now-lost manuscript entitled On Sphere-making. Pappus also states that it was the only manuscript that Archimedes wrote on "practical" matters. No physical trace of Archimedes' planetarium survives. Cicero refers to it as a "bronze contrivance" while Claudian describes it as "a sphere of glass."

(from Archimedes
posted by lagado at 7:08 AM on September 25, 2002

I wonder if this is an example of a solution seeking a problem. Looking back with our hindsight we recognise this technology as vitally important, for example for ocean navigation, mechanical power and being woken up in the morning, but for the Greeks these were simply not issues.

Instead it seems that this technology was mainly used for what we would consider toys. The Byzantines (who inherited Greek Civilisation without the 'fall' that the Scientific American seems to imagine) built amazing mechanical birds - immense automata of unknown workings - achievements we have not, and would not seek, to match. We value what is useful to us.
posted by grahamwell at 8:02 AM on September 25, 2002

Also an interesting wonder from this thread, is [whether] man used calculus & physics back then like we use simple math in everyday life?

No, thomcatspike. You are a couple thousand years early for calculus, likewise Newtonian physics (I assume that is what you are referring to as 'physics'.)
posted by quarantine at 12:13 PM on September 25, 2002

Great thread, thank you, thank you.
posted by rotifer at 4:59 PM on September 25, 2002

Hey Cool, my thesis has been MetaFiltered! I feel so important!

I'm not linking it because:
a) it's already linked above
b) I'm embarrassed to have still not put up the images and
c) you're not supposed to self link here, right?

posted by shinythings at 11:42 PM on September 25, 2002

c) you're not supposed to self link here, right?

Self-links in-thread are generally considered fine, if they're germane to the topic at hand, shinythings.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:03 AM on September 26, 2002

Self-linking like that is more than welcome. Thanks Bernard for putting your thesis online and available for linking

(oh and thanks also for putting a link pointing back to this thread)

posted by lagado at 4:57 AM on September 26, 2002

No, thomcatspike. You are a couple thousand years early for calculus, likewise Newtonian physics

What about analytical geometry & trigonometry? I lump those in as calculus. For use in building the pyramids. Or, stones placed for astronomical events.

I may have my dates mixed, I'm not good going backwards with negative years. But, for the stones, 2200BC. I should have referenced better my examples that lead to my thoughts.
posted by thomcatspike at 9:50 AM on September 26, 2002

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