Old Skool
November 29, 2006 11:36 AM   Subscribe

This is like, even older than the Apple ][. Scientists use high-res imaging to take a real close look at the Antikythera Mechanism [previously discussed here], and it's even more sophisticated than they first thought. It's all in this week's Nature.
posted by jtajta (27 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
For the mechanically inclined among you, here is the gear train of the Mechanism.

The fact that these were unknown prior to this discovery, and that we haven't found others suggests that not many of these were made. Thus, the mechanism might have been the defense contracting of it's day.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:52 AM on November 29, 2006

Wow, that's incredible. Fingers crossed that more Ancient Greek clockwork comes to light.... I'd like to see what inspired Pindar's ode:

The animated figures stand
Adorning every public street
And seem to breathe in stone, or
move their marble feet.
posted by algreer at 11:57 AM on November 29, 2006

Thanks for the additional info, Pastabagel. That's some impressive interrelations between the various bits.

The fact that this thing is over 2000 years old is quite awe inspiring.

Humans rock!
posted by C.Batt at 12:04 PM on November 29, 2006

The NY Times article ended by saying that 1,000 years elapsed before instruments of such complexity were know to re-emerge. What prevented the passing of that knowledge? The mind boggles what the world would have been like if complex gear trains continued to develop.
posted by jaimev at 12:10 PM on November 29, 2006

What prevented the passing of that knowledge?

I would venture to say that once they realized they couldn't use it to download porn, the Greeks gave up on it.

All kidding aside, this is fascinating stuff. Thanks so much for the link! Flagged as excellent.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:15 PM on November 29, 2006

Here are some more images and some information on the imaging techniques used to examine the Antikythera Mechanism.
posted by gruchall at 12:24 PM on November 29, 2006

When past or future dates were entered via a crank.

How far we've come. Nowadays cranks enter all kinds of stuff into MetaFilter.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:29 PM on November 29, 2006

C.Batt, what is even more impressive is that it has more moving parts than a Rolex or a manual transmission on a car.

I think what may have prevented the passing of the knowledge realtes to my defense contracting comment. This was engineering on an order of magnitude more advanced than *most* engineers of antiquity possessed. Not just the gear train, but the machining and handiwork required extraordinary skill for the time.

It's very possible that the handful (or fewer) brightest people who understood it couldn't communicate it with the complete level of detail to more than one or two apprentices - remember, they didn't have printing presses, widespread paper use, or books. Maybe you had one complete set of drawings somewhere, but you couldn't copy it, and there probably wasn't even a vocabulary for describing the mechanism.

It's an example of how there wasn't enough ancillary technology relating to the communication of ideas to keep the concept in its fully rendered form alive - no way to copy drawings accurately and a mechanism so complex that a single copy error in a drawing would renders the entire thing useless.

jaimev - the problem with gear trains, then and now, is power. These gears had to be made by hand so they could only be so strong and so small, but to add any weight to them to act as a drive train or to power the screw of a ship would have required much much more power then anything they had at the time.

Frankly, gearing hasn't really progressed all that much. The innovations after you get the teeth ratios down are clutches, flywheels, springs and the planetary gears found in automatic transmissions.

The advancement came in materials, craftsmanship, optics to magnify tiny gears so you could work them with finer precision (they didn't have magnifying glasses back then either), machining, etc.
posted by Pastabagel at 12:29 PM on November 29, 2006 [3 favorites]

That comment in the NY Times is debatable. It reflects a common practice of airbrushing the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman Empire, out of history (a practice encouraged by us Western Europeans who saw the whole thing as Greek and degenerate). In fact the mechanical arts were well developed in the Byzantine Court ....

An Italian bishop who visited Constantinople in 949 said that the throne room of the Imperial palace contained a golden organ as well as several automata. At the base of the dais there was a golden tree with artificial birds which would suddenly burst into song, each bird singing its own melody. On both sides of the throne there were golden lions which roared and thrashed their tails. There was also a mechanism which caused the throne to rise into the air.
posted by grahamwell at 12:32 PM on November 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

While were on the subject of all things cool and clockwork, offered for your consideration is the Curta Handheld Calculator.
posted by Pastabagel at 12:34 PM on November 29, 2006

So the difference engine is steam-punk, that would make this, what? bronze-punk?
posted by quin at 12:46 PM on November 29, 2006

Unless you wan to see a bunch of sweet dogs, you can safely ignore that link, This is more what I was going for.
posted by quin at 12:49 PM on November 29, 2006

Tangentially (so to speak): Heron of Alexandria's 1st century BC "steam turbine"
posted by Rumple at 12:58 PM on November 29, 2006

Wait...the calculator could have been dog powered.

I just blew your mind.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:04 PM on November 29, 2006

TheWhiteSkull: dogs, sheep, and other small animals were used as power sources for machinery at least as far back as the 16th century. There was even a now-extinct breed of dog known as the turnspit that used to be employed in kitchens, turning meat.

some pictures of the treadmill machines.
posted by sonofsamiam at 1:37 PM on November 29, 2006

I've been fascinated with this device ever since I first learned about it back in the 1980's. It's incredible that they've just now got the tech to get inside and figure it out!

I bet the ancient Greeks wasted hundreds of hours playing Knossos Trail on this thing...
posted by Aquaman at 1:40 PM on November 29, 2006 [2 favorites]

sonofsamiam, that's awesome. And you've given me a great idea. Once construction is finished, my hyperactive cattle dog and a hyper-hyperactive rat terrier that are going to start pulling their weight. I figure if I hook them up to a generator, I could pull my house completely off the grid.

Wisconsin Energies? Pfft. I'm dog powered.
posted by quin at 2:45 PM on November 29, 2006

at least 30, possibly 37, hand-cut bronze gear-wheels

a couple millennia later and we *almost* have the technology to count how many gear-wheels are in this thing.
posted by snofoam at 3:31 PM on November 29, 2006

A further thought about why this technology didn't carry forward in the non-Byzantine world: if it's true that only a handful of people knew what this device was and how to use it (as Pastabagel suggests) and it is also true that it was found in the debris of a shipwreck at the bottom of the ocean, isn't it likely that many of the people who knew how it worked died in the wreck?

It's hard to pass knowledge to an apprentice if you're dead. If the makers died en route from the factory to the shipping destination, then -- assuming these geniuses were good -- then what a tragedy! Most scenarios I can dream up are tragic for this one.
posted by rw at 4:07 PM on November 29, 2006

uh oh.
posted by cytherea at 4:54 PM on November 29, 2006

Oh! Oh! You know what would be so cool right now? A picture of Bubo, the clockwork owl from Clash of the Titans, going "O RLY?" Yeah, that'd be awesome.

Seriously, I had no idea there was something like verisimilitude regarding the character.
posted by kimota at 5:58 PM on November 29, 2006

rw beat me to it. Occam's razor suggests that the knowledge died with the device, otherwise they would have made another.

grahamwell: Isn't 949 A.D. about 1000 years after 65 B.C.? But Arab science is also overlooked in this regard.

I think Pastabagel's explanation is possible. The Portuguese and Spanish, for example, made cartography a state secret. Giving the enemy a map was punishable by death.

I'm not entirely certain I see a specific military application to the device (that wasn't already available through charts and tables). It could have been a secret just because it was a luxury item (for all we know the buyer perished on the same wreck). It could have just been considered esoteric and ignored. I think I'm leaning toward the Pindar question -- what else did Rhodes produce, technologically, that was lost to history? If they spent their energies making animatronics, it's possible that practical application escaped their attention. You also wonder what was destroyed in various invasions, the way that the Acropolis was blown up when it was used as an ammo dump.
posted by dhartung at 7:29 PM on November 29, 2006

Cool. It seems that there is some big brew-haha November 30 and Dec 1 for the new findings.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 9:48 PM on November 29, 2006

The full piece from Nature.
posted by johnny novak at 12:27 AM on November 30, 2006

Technology transfer is not nearly as easy as people assume in this age of international open source software collaboration over the internets.

Without institutions, cultural, social or formal, to transfer technology, innovations languish. Those institutions can also be greedy with spreading the innovation, as the international fight over AIDS drug patents suggests, but a really neat new thing/practice doesn't just spread by itself.

Consider the advances in water treatment since the 1970's in the U.S. Organizations like Ocean Arks International have developed amazingly effective methods to take all of the nasty shit the "green revolution" /oil industry has manufactured and dumped in our water supply. But their practices remain implemented on a very small scale, because of the lack of political motivation.

The same goes for wind and solar power. Because these technologies suffer from a lack of institutional support, they are practically suppressed by the massive institutional support from the oil and gas industries.

Payson Center for International Development and Technology Transfer, Tulane University

I can't help but imagine that future scholars will celebrate the findings of some dug up Treatise on water management / living machine that went unimplemented in our time.
posted by eustatic at 8:32 AM on November 30, 2006

Oh! Oh! You know what would be so cool right now? A picture of Bubo, the clockwork owl from Clash of the Titans, going "O RLY?"

="http://seshat.org/images/bubo_orly.jpg" width=305 height=224 border=0>

Was it everything you hoped for?
posted by Foosnark at 10:23 AM on November 30, 2006 [2 favorites]

You know, that worked in the live preview.
posted by Foosnark at 10:24 AM on November 30, 2006

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