Going back to Antikythera
June 5, 2014 3:55 AM   Subscribe

The Antikythera mechanism (wiki), the world's oldest computing device, has fascinated mankind since it was discovered by sponge divers in 1900. Modern technology has revealed much of how the mechanism works, but there is still plenty of mystery surrounding the artefact. One example is "Fragment D", which doesn't fit in with the rest of the recovered pieces. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is setting up an expedition to explore the wreck, this time using a nifty hi-tech exosuit, eliminating many of the disadvantages of using regular diving equipment or remotely operated submersibles. The hope is to recover a hypothetical second mechanism, in addition to the other valuable archaeological finds still waiting at the shipwreck site.
posted by Harald74 (34 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
This sounds the the start of a horror film.
posted by humanfont at 5:10 AM on June 5, 2014 [8 favorites]


...unbeknownst to the Woods Hole team, valuable archaeological finds aren't the only things waiting for them at the shipwreck site....
posted by stinkfoot at 5:13 AM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


...there's also romance. Antikythera. The new film from Wes Anderson.
posted by eriko at 5:18 AM on June 5, 2014 [17 favorites]


Stuff you missed in history has a page and a podcast on the mechanism, for those who are so inclined.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:25 AM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


...there's also romance. Antikythera. The new film from Wes Anderson.

I think James Cameron would be the one to direct that movie. He could find a way to include a survivor from the original shipwreck as one of the romantic leads.

If I win a big lottery jackpot in the near future, I think I know where the first $1.5 million is going. However, I won't be spending any of it on Valspar paints after they have come up with quite possibly the most annoying internet ad ever, painting over the entire screen just as I was starting to RTFA.
posted by TedW at 5:32 AM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


Something's missing with that suit ... oh yeah ... a Little Sister.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 5:33 AM on June 5, 2014 [5 favorites]


...there's also romance. Antikythera. The new film from Wes Anderson.

"Like the suit? It's a submarine that I wear! Hand me that drill, your Big Daddy's got him some artefacts to find!"
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:35 AM on June 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


Didn't Giorgio ascertain that it was most certainly ALIENS that created this mechanism?
posted by John Kennedy Toole Box at 5:51 AM on June 5, 2014


Aliens who were unaware that a spring, or falling weight could be used to drive gears apparently.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:53 AM on June 5, 2014


Today I used a little pocket-sized rectangle, which gives me access to the majority of all current human knowledge, to learn that someone is going to get into a submersible exo-suit (safe up to 300 meters) and go look for a mysterious ancient computer.

Huh.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 6:09 AM on June 5, 2014 [13 favorites]


I love news on ancient machinery and technology and shall fervently hope that a second machine is found. Mechanical God Speed!
posted by Atreides at 6:16 AM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


From the Wikipedia article:
The computer's construction has been attributed to the Greeks and dated to the early 1st century BC. Technological artifacts approaching its complexity and workmanship did not appear again until the 14th century, when mechanical astronomical clocks began to be built in Western Europe.
I'm curious when this technological know how was lost. I'm guessing here, but it seems like this sort of computer could be used for ballistic calculations, had the Byzantines still had it by the introduction of gunpowder. Perfectly aimed cannonballs filled with Greek Fire!
posted by spaltavian at 6:18 AM on June 5, 2014


Clive Cussler is not a good enough writer for his imaginary world to start bleeding into ours...

That said, this is unbelievably cool and I am so happy it is real.
posted by staccato signals of constant information at 6:19 AM on June 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


The Antikythera mechanism was also a central plot point in Stonehenge Apocalypse, aka the best worst SyFy movie, featuring the roadtrip adventures of Castiel, Elizabeth Weir, and Methos.
posted by kmz at 6:26 AM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


By the way, the Stuff You Missed in History Class page link above has a video of a LEGO Antikythera mechanism with some brief discussion of how it works. Here it is separately for the LEGO-inclined.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:45 AM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


There's a timeline where the people that invented this mechanism met the people who had primitive steam powered engines [also Greek I believe] and the folks in Iraq who had the clay pot batteries.

In that timeline, the internet age occured in the 1700s and we're currently all scattered across interplanetary colonies.
posted by Renoroc at 6:48 AM on June 5, 2014 [8 favorites]


I'm more of a pro-kythera guy myself, but each to their own.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 6:53 AM on June 5, 2014 [5 favorites]


The mechanism was featured in the (excellent) BBC show The Story of Science: Power, Proof and Passion which included a working modern replica (iPlayer link, Youtube link, skip to 11:25).
posted by EndsOfInvention at 7:00 AM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm curious when this technological know how was lost

Even before the Internet, we've had a lot of really great technology and social systems dedicated to storing & communicating information of various kinds - Universities, religious orders, printed books. Everything about this mechanism predates most of that, with some weird exceptions that lost their continuity (ie, the Library of Alexandria.) Basically, the knowledge wasn't necessarily "lost" - it just wasn't preserved the way we've been reflexively preserving practically all knowledge for the last few hundred years.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:00 AM on June 5, 2014


Also, Antikythera is just fun to say.
posted by Bunny Boneyology at 7:07 AM on June 5, 2014


Renoroc: It was Hero of Alexandria who invented (or first described in detail) the aeolipile, a crude steam engine. But it seems that it was never regarded as much more than a cute gadget to be displayed in temples and such. The ancients in general didn't seem to have much use for technology as we know it, given the dichotomy they imposed between lowly engineering and lofty mathematics, which was reserved for the study of the heavenly bodies. Also, slave societies like the Roman Empire tend not to invest much in labor-saving devices (see also the antebellum American South).
posted by Cash4Lead at 7:12 AM on June 5, 2014 [5 favorites]


I'm curious when this technological know how was lost

I think a more interesting question is "why"? You could make a pretty good case for the reason for this being social inequality. Basically, you had a social system so hierarchical and with such a tiny proportion of the population able to exercise intellectual agency that there was no room (socially or culturally) for these innovations to develop. No systems of knowledge to increase their spread, no institutions of mass education to pass on the secrets and principles of their creation. So ultimately the only function they could have was as playthings to entertain the passing fancies of a tiny aristocratic elite. And once the economy collapsed, the objects and knowledge associated with them were so limited in spread (because they hadn't been reproduced or disseminated) that they were as easily destroyed as the other household contents of the individual villas they were stored in.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:18 AM on June 5, 2014 [5 favorites]


Another thing to consider is the multitude of skills and expertise required just to make the parts for it - the teeth on the gears, the quality of the bronze and the casting methods, the fact that different batches of bronze with different mixtures of copper or tin would expand and contract at different rates with temperature and affect the gearing, not to mention the problems with assembling and interlocking the whole system together.

it seems like this sort of computer could be used for ballistic calculations, had the Byzantines still had it by the introduction of gunpowder.

True, but they would have also needed to have a much better understanding of gravity and wind resistance to actually figure out the calculations, which at that time was hampered with a lot of rather silly Aristotelian assumptions about how those things work.
posted by chambers at 7:19 AM on June 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


If there is one shining example throughout the last 10,000 years of human history of "This is why we can't have nice things" it's the loss of the Library of Alexandria. No one group is solely responsible, though - here's a decent list of how it all went up in smoke and compares the different claims from the various stories about it..
posted by chambers at 7:24 AM on June 5, 2014 [4 favorites]


Aliens who were unaware that a spring, or falling weight could be used to drive gears apparently.

One of the most important inventions of the last 1000 years was the Verge and Foliot. The discovery was not just a creat way to regulate clocks, but was a vital step to the entire development of machinery. With out some way to regulate forces from the springs, pendulums, or falling water, many precision mechanical devices (and the devices that make the parts) would be very difficult, if not impossible to create.

Aliens telling us how to make gears and precision machinery and not also telling us about the Verge and Foliot is like telling us how to build all the parts for a computer but not tell us about the concept of capacitors or resistors. Oh, that silly Giorgio. I don't think there is any theory that comes out of his head that doesn't make me want to slap him and give him an actual history book.
posted by chambers at 7:54 AM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


I have access to a large and fancy 3D printer which we're encouraged to do things with. I lack the skills or time to make a workable Antikythera Mechanism. I wish I could just download a 3D file to print my own.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:29 AM on June 5, 2014


I wish I could just download a 3D file to print my own.

Here you go, in CAD format. (dismiss the domain expiry warning, the site is still up)
posted by chambers at 8:34 AM on June 5, 2014


I'm guessing here, but it seems like this sort of computer could be used for ballistic calculations, had the Byzantines still had it by the introduction of gunpowder.

Not without ballistic theory. You could do crude empirical calculations, I suppose, but your computer is going to be pretty limited in its effectiveness if you don't know that projectiles travel along parabolic arcs.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:48 AM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


chambers: "it's the loss of the Library of Alexandria. No one group is solely responsible, though"

There's a lot of ancient libraries/research centres that in hindsight were indispensable but were annihilated. For at least one, the Library of Baghdad, we have a single main culprit.

Many of Alexandria's texts were copied and dispersed west->east through the libraries of Nisibis, Edessa, Constantinople and Gondishapur, with the Bayt al-Hikma acting as the focal point for research in that region for half millennium, basically following the cultural turn against secular research in the west and its relocation first into Sassanid Persia and then the Abbasid Caliphate.
posted by meehawl at 9:42 AM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


You could do crude empirical calculations, I suppose, but your computer is going to be pretty limited in its effectiveness if you don't know that projectiles travel along parabolic arcs.

Did the Greeks not know this? They didn't understand gravity, but parabolic arcs seems like the sort of geometry stuff they would be in to. I mean, they had archers who had to know about parabolas, right?

curious when this technological know how was lost

I think a more interesting question is "why"? You could make a pretty good case for the reason for this being social inequality.


I've definitely thought that a lack of economic development undermined Classical civilization. Greco-Roman society had many of the antecendents for industrialization, but none of the economic pressue to do so, as their proto-middle class got squeezed out by the latifundium. (Which, were, ironically, quasi-industrial agriculture, but their dependence of slave labor ensured extreme inequality.) It's similar to the Antebellum South as someone pointed out above.

Without a large, prosperous middle class, you have less development, infrastructure and overall wealth. A large mass of urban poor is doesn't "buy in" to society, hinders development, and can't be citizen-soliders, requiring mercenaries.

Maybe a more equal Rome could have been robust enough to meet the challenges of the 5th century. And probably could have maintained the techological edge over their Germanic neighbors that they had slowly lost over time.

I'm not a medievalist, but the latifundia seem like the blueprint for the manor system of feudalism, and the next 1,000 years of economic stagnation.
posted by spaltavian at 9:45 AM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


Another perspective on lost technology, if a vast number of the population was wiped out tomorrow, how many of those remaining would have the education AND technological know how to keep the technology we use today going or continually produced? Now what if the percentage of people who could do that before the cataclysmic wipe out numbered in the single percentage digits? Throw in a lack of reliable knowledge transmission devices (as mentioned above) and suddenly, it's entirely comprehensible to find a group of people who may even have used or fondly recalled the technology, but have no means to understand or reproduce it.

One of the great tragedies of my life is that I have to live with the realization that in a post-apocalyptic world, the major part of my education and training would leave me pretty much dependent as an unskilled laborer! While I can be clever at figuring out simple solutions to simple problems, you totally don't want to be stuck with me on a deserted island because you will die from starvation unless you die from boredom, "So, want to learn something interesting again about the American Civil War? No? What about the early Christian church? Um, Feudal Japan? How about I recite Star Wars again? You know, like in Ring of Fire? You enjoyed it the first seventeen times! And man, did you find any more food yet?"
posted by Atreides at 9:57 AM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


Did the Greeks not know this? They didn't understand gravity, but parabolic arcs seems like the sort of geometry stuff they would be in to.

I'm not well versed in applied geometry in the ancient world as I would like to be (the parts that I know of are more about the mystical significance of 'Platonic Solids,' and such, but not so much when it comes to real-world applications), but here is a decent explanation of what was going on in the period between Copernicus and Newton, regarding Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia's ballistic theories, and how that conflicted with the Aristotelian view of the world. James Burke's The Day the Universe Changed, episode 5, relevant parts from 11:30 onwards.

Also, here's a quick bit from Burke's Connections show, demonstrating that verge and foliat thing I was speaking of earlier. Burke's shows are quite nice to have on hand for moments such as this.

So many things need to be in place beforehand to get to the point where you finally have the solid math about parabolas and ballistics in front of you to start using, that matching the skills, machinery, and theories all at once took a very, very long time.
posted by chambers at 10:30 AM on June 5, 2014 [5 favorites]


Oh, Woods Hole got themselves a new toy? Do we know which super-secret military mission this was actually built for?
posted by ckape at 11:58 AM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


Incidentally, the National Archaeological museum in Athens has a fantastic exhibition about the Antikythera findings (or had in January at least).
posted by ersatz at 3:40 PM on June 5, 2014


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