Antikythera Mechanism revealed
July 30, 2008 1:29 PM   Subscribe

The Antikythera Mechanism has been decoded. Two years ago, it was confirmed that the machine was capable of astronomical calculations. Now it appears there's just one more thing: 3D imaging of the machine made it possible to reconstruct the complete workings, and it turns out it was also capable of tracking the timing of the Olympic games. The findings were reported today in Nature. Previous Apple joke here, an incredibly deep post about it here, and a longer report from the New Yorker.
posted by one_bean (40 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
How freaking cool is that?! Thanks for the post!
posted by Naberius at 1:38 PM on July 30, 2008


If you slot a power crystal into it the Beijing National Stadium gets destroyed in an earthquake.
posted by Artw at 1:38 PM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


There's a whole bunch of these in the junk drawer at the Vatican.
posted by Sukiari at 1:39 PM on July 30, 2008 [7 favorites]


is there a non registration link?
posted by empath at 1:41 PM on July 30, 2008


“We believe that this mechanism cannot have been the first such device since it is so sophisticated and complex,” Dr. Freeth said. “And we don’t understand why this extraordinary technology apparently disappeared for several hundred years, later to emerge in the great astronomical clocks of the 14th century onwards.”

The creator spent too much time coding and not enough time writing documentation.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 1:41 PM on July 30, 2008 [19 favorites]


Well, we could reconstruct it, but where would we get the orichalcum beads to run it?
posted by uncleozzy at 1:44 PM on July 30, 2008 [4 favorites]


Great find-- thanks.
posted by darth_tedious at 1:48 PM on July 30, 2008


The bit that EMRJKC94 quotes is one of those phrases that make me appreciate just how much it is that we don't know about the distant past.

Oh, for a time machine!
posted by Kattullus at 1:50 PM on July 30, 2008


For non-NYT registrants, here's an equally good article from the Telegraph, and the full cadre of articles from Google News.
posted by one_bean at 1:51 PM on July 30, 2008


The 'Uncensor the Internet' script I have has adjusted the Nature article to say that all that remains of the Antikythera gear is 82 fragments of fucking bronze.
posted by tula at 1:52 PM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


“We believe that this mechanism cannot have been the first such device since it is so sophisticated and complex,”

Why not? "Creationism" is perfectly acceptable theory when we're talking about a device made by man.
posted by three blind mice at 1:56 PM on July 30, 2008


Von Daniken says it was aliens.

Not that I've checked, but he always says that.
posted by Artw at 1:59 PM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Kattullus: Oh, for a time machine!

I think this might be what this is, and look where it got them.
posted by cjorgensen at 1:59 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


I disagree, 3bm. Technology evolves, too. Or co-evolves, rather.
posted by empath at 1:59 PM on July 30, 2008


Does this mean that we finally have the tools, at long last, to destroy Kythera?
posted by LionIndex at 2:22 PM on July 30, 2008 [11 favorites]


I like how it says the gear had the names of the 12 months in that calendar, and oh, btw, no one knew those names before now. Wuh?
posted by smackfu at 2:33 PM on July 30, 2008


I bet they found a salt shaker embedded a clay pot right next to where they found this, but never told us about it.
posted by chimaera at 2:37 PM on July 30, 2008 [4 favorites]


The creator spent too much time coding and not enough time writing documentation.

You say this jokingly but there is more than a small kernel of truth to it. The strength of the scientific process and what has led to the great achievements of the last few hundred years is the idea that you share your results and others reproduce them. This is in direct opposition to the way technology and innovation were closely guarded secrets in the past.

If somebody figures out a way to make intricate clockwork mechanisms and that knowledge is only shared with a very small guild of master smiths or whatever, it's very easy for that knowledge to die out.
posted by Justinian at 2:41 PM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Did it turn out to be about an ancient ski resort?
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:48 PM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Cue the Great Old Ones in three, two, one...
posted by eclectist at 2:59 PM on July 30, 2008


I wonder if this thing actually served a function (that is, did people consult it in a "hmm, I wonder how many more lunar months there are until the next Olympiad" kind of way) or if it was more a kind of super-cool toy ("I know you know that the next Olympiad is thirteen lunar months away, but if I wind this little wheel every day for the next thirteen lunar months that stylus there will line up with that mark there on the very day the games start! How freaking cool is that?" "Eh--I'm going to wait for the one with pop-up sundial.")
posted by yoink at 3:26 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


is there a non registration link?

Try this (via New York Times Link Generator).
posted by kirkaracha at 3:36 PM on July 30, 2008


Cue the Great Old Ones in three, two, one...

Now I've lined it up the writing on the edge appears to say that the stars are... bright?
posted by Artw at 3:48 PM on July 30, 2008


Also, there's this video, which shows interviews with some of the scientists, and 3d animations of the x-ray imaging and reconstructed mechanism..
posted by Alterscape at 4:21 PM on July 30, 2008


The creator spent too much time coding and not enough time writing documentation.
No, the manual was there, but unfortunately, it was mostly destroyed.

So technology and innovation weren't that closely guarded secrets apparently. Which makes the total disappearance of the relevant technological know-how even more of a mystery.

See the full publication in Nature, here.
posted by talos at 4:42 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Artw: Now I've lined it up the writing on the edge appears to say ...

"One Antikythera to rule them all..."
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:54 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Now I've lined it up the writing on the edge appears to say that the stars are... bright?

Deep in the heart of Corinth!

okay, I'll stop now.

posted by Greg_Ace at 5:00 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wonderful. Thanks for posting.
posted by homunculus at 8:39 PM on July 30, 2008


I recommend that Nature video. And I want to know more about the delightful old gent who reconstructs medieval clocks! He's taking a crack at this baby, and I hope we get another FPP when he's finished.

Am I correct in thinking that this doodad wasn't a clock in the usual sense of tracking hours and minutes, but more like a mechanical calendar? You didn't wind it up and let it tick away, but you'd turn a crank to check when an eclipse or Olympic game was supposed to occur? Why did somebody feel the need to invent one - were ancient Greek mathematicians and astronomers such a pain in the butt that a mechanical substitute was necessary? Knowing many of today's geeks, I can see how this might happen.

These devices must have been breathtakingly expensive and rare in their day (how many workshops could have had the skills and schematics to build them?), so who would have bought them and why? Sounds like the sort of thing that heads of state like to flash around to impress their rivals, more than a practical tool to help plan civic events. You know, like the low-tech hick towns have a grumpy astronomer with a wax tablet but the really cool city-states spin bronze.

Anyway, cool post - thanks, one_bean.
posted by Quietgal at 8:43 PM on July 30, 2008


At first I looked at the article and wondered why it would have twelve months, when that didn't appear until the later Julian calendar (which started on March 1; January and February were the additions). Then I looked it up and realized they were talking lunar months, which are only close to a solar year.

three blind mice: (On the assertion this could not have been the first of it's kind) "Why not? "Creationism" is perfectly acceptable theory when we're talking about a device made by man."

So, if a future society of humans finds my laptop, are they going to assume there were no simpler computers that predated it?

E.M.R.J.K.C. '94: "The creator spent too much time coding and not enough time writing documentation."

Ahh, yes. Trade secrets. Good thing the relevance of this has declined largely due to the availability of data in the modern age. The once-mighty Freemasons are now just a nifty club with initiation rituals. The only ones that remain are the Bar and Medical associations, which retain relevance through "quality control" rather than trade secrets.
posted by mystyk at 11:57 PM on July 30, 2008


Wow, there are still people who haven't registered to the NYTimes. Crazy.
posted by smackfu at 5:40 AM on July 31, 2008


Ooh, I loves me some antikythera. Although Nature articles aren't really hard to read (pick a font weight! and lose the footnotes!)

...wondered why it would have twelve months, when that didn't appear until the later Julian calendar...

Maybe they've figured out exactly what year it was made, or eliminated this explanation, but the device was found among the wreckage of a Roman merchant ship. So presumably it could still be post-Julian.

This is probably buried in one of the previous links, but there's a simulator.
posted by DU at 6:31 AM on July 31, 2008


This is a machine developed by a time traveler who'd become stranded in ancient Greece through a series of patently avoidable mishaps and shoddy time-machine construction. He built the 'Antikythera' machine, a basic device for his home-time, to figure out where the next naturally occurring time-hole would appear in his then-time so that he could jump through it and begin a stepping-stone approach back to his home-time. He found the time hole but was unable to bring the machine (he was being pursued by constables and dropped it in the chase) and the time he jumped to from ancient Greece was Earth's Cretaceous period. Finding his toolset and source of materials sorely limited in that time, and finding himself in a much more dangerous environment, it took him much longer to construct another such machine (one that will never be found by any other human - It was constructed primarily of wood, stone and sinew and the useful parts of it were destroyed by a forest fire shortly before he was able to use it). Finding himself alone and without help, exhausted by fear and the toil of building the machine yet again only to have it destroyed at the critical moment, the time traveler walked to the top of a high peak with the intention of throwing himself off of it. On the way to the top, however, he tripped and knocked himself out on a rock. He lay there until a passing time-safari (travelers from the future who go back in time to hunt game that doesn't exist in their own time) happened upon him. They picked him up and carried him back to their home-time. Unfortunately for the 'Antikythera' time traveler, the time-safari was made up of a group of people from forty years in his own future, a time when the time-safari's people had been decimated by a particularly brutal war precipitated upon them the 'Antikythera' time traveler's people. The time-safari people took the 'Antikytheran' back to their time and locked him up. He died in prison.

Before dying, the 'Antikytheran' told the story of his travels to the Time Safari people. Realizing the danger that a machine like the Antikythera machine posed to chronological continuity, the Time Safari people went back to ancient Greece to retrieve it. When they arrived, however, the machine had been re-engraved and was being used to mirror of the phases of the moon and plan the timing of the Olympic games by an awfully self-satisfied Archemides. Seeing the machine repurposed so, the Time Safari felt that any danger had been averted. They grabbed a few gyros and headed home.

Anyway, just thought I'd clear that up for everyone.
posted by Pecinpah at 7:27 AM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


The ancient Greeks probably didn't have the precision engineering required to make gyros either, at least not ones that would spin at high RPM for very long.
posted by DU at 7:29 AM on July 31, 2008


Sandwich-gyros. "Yee-roes" - The ones you eat.
posted by Pecinpah at 7:40 AM on July 31, 2008


And I just got a mental image of sandwiches spinning at high velocity, spilling their condiments all over the place...

DU, I suppose it would depend on your definitions of "high RPM" and "very long" for this case. It seems any primitive top, such as a dreidel, would work if you don't expect it to stay for more than about 30 seconds.
posted by mystyk at 7:49 AM on July 31, 2008


(That was a joke.)
posted by DU at 8:02 AM on July 31, 2008


smackfu, the mechanism was extremely corroded. Even identifying the most corroded gears as being gears with so and so many teeth was very hard to do, and presumably finding traces of inscriptions under layers of oxide was even harder. Hooray for X-ray tomography.

The Greeks had also invented primitive steam-powered hydraulics. The peculiar thing is that they had these fairly sophisticated machines but that this technology never had much impact on society. One hypothesis is that a slaveholding economy has relatively little need for labor saving devices and little concern for the people doing the work, hence no impetus to develop steam-powered pumps to get water out of the mines.

If clockwork devices had found a mass market before the visigoths showed up, knowledge of this technology would likely have survived the dark ages; presumably monks would rather have had grandfather clocks than crude water clocks to time their prayers. It's a pity we missed out on steampunk Charlemagne.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:23 AM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


steam-powered hydraulics

Well, not quite. Hero of Alexandria is...well, I'd say one of my heroes but that's a dumb joke. Anyway, I've read up on this a bit. He had the aeolipile, a steam-powered reaction engine (not quite a steam engine, but you didn't say it was). And he had hydraulic machines. He did not have any steam-powered hydraulics or indeed steam-powered anything. Air-powered, water-powered, gravity-powered and human-powered, yes. Steam-powered, in the sense of heating water specifically to use the incredible expansion of water vapor to power a device, no. That I know of.

Anyway, I agree with the rest of your comment, just wanted to clear up that nitpicky detail.
posted by DU at 11:07 AM on July 31, 2008


I love The Antikythera Mechanism more than pizza. I can't wait to get home and be able to read all of this. Thanks!
posted by absalom at 4:16 PM on July 31, 2008


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