Ancient Greek calculating device continues to reveal secrets

Apr 04, 2011 by Bob Yirka report
Main Antikythera mechanism fragment. The mechanism consists of a complex system of 32 wheels and plates with inscriptions relating to the signs of the zodiac and the months. Image: National Archaeological Museum, Athens, No. 15987.

(PhysOrg.com) -- It's known as the Antikythera mechanism, a metal gear driven device found over a century ago on a sunken Roman ship, near the island of Antikythera, that for just as many years has had scientists analyzing, scratching their heads and offering suggestions as to its purpose.

Some have called the device the first analog computer; others the first mechanical computing device. Either way, the device very clearly demonstrates that the Greeks of 150 to 100 BCE knew far more about gears and calculating machines than had been thought possible just a decade or so ago.

After careful analysis with an x-ray tomography machine which allowed the device to be seen as a series of slices that could then be used to see all the way through the mechanism slice by slice (as is done with the same machine when analyzing organs inside a living human being) researchers, particularly Michael Wright, now of Imperial College, London, have come to believe they have almost a full understanding of what the machines was built to do; and that, was to calculate the position of celestial bodies.

Wright has even built (completed in 2006) what he believes to be an almost exact replica of the device.

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If modern research is correct, the device worked by hand cranking a main dial to display a chosen date, causing the wheels and gears inside to display (via tabs on separate dials) the position of the sun, moon, and the five known planets at that time, for that date; a mechanical and technical feat that would not be seen again until the fourteenth century in Europe with precision clocks.

Also, some of the early research showed that the device actually used special gears to account for the elliptical shape of the moon’s orbit to account for what appeared to be a speed up and slow down as the moon moved around the Earth.

Now James Evans and his colleagues at the University of Puget Sound in Washington State, have shown that instead of trying to use the same kind of gear mechanism to account for the elliptical path the Earth takes around the sun, and subsequent apparent changes in speed, the inventor of the device may have taken a different tack, and that was to stretch or distort the zodiac on the dial face to change the width of the spaces on the face to make up for the slightly different amount of time that is represented as the hand moves around the face.

In a paper published in the Journal for the History of Astronomy, Evans describes how he and his team were able to examine x-rays taken of the corroded machine (69 then later 88 degrees of the circle) and discovered that the two circles that were used to represent the Zodiac and Egyptian calendar respectively, did indeed differ just enough to account for what appeared to be the irregular movement during different parts of the year.

Though not all experts agree on the findings, this new evidence does appear to suggest that an attempt was made by the early inventor to take into account the elliptical nature of the Earth orbiting the sun, no small thing.

Some have attributed the technical anomaly of the existence of the Antikythera mechanism, to visitation by aliens, others have suggested it wasn’t the Greeks at all that came up with the technology, but the ancient Babylonians, who passed on the gains they had made in not just mechanical engineering, but math and astronomy as well. Either way, it’s clear that early civilizations came to know and understand much more about the world around them then modern society has given them credit for and as our own understanding of the sciences grows, we come to see that it’s quite possible that a lot of the things we take for granted as inventions of the modern era, are simply recreations of work done by our forebears.

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User comments : 39

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ubavontuba
3 / 5 (4) Apr 04, 2011
I am completely awed by this device. I wonder, was it unique?

The inventor must have had a mind on the order of Leonardo Da Vinci's.
Quantum_Conundrum
1.5 / 5 (32) Apr 04, 2011
I am completely awed by this device. I wonder, was it unique?

The inventor must have had a mind on the order of Leonardo Da Vinci's.


We are to believe, according to modern atheists and mainstream archeologists and anthropologists that the linguist apostle Paul was a caveman, that Puma Punku was made without writing or Pythagorean theorem, and that the Pyramids were made through manual slave labor.

The couldn't POSSIBLY have brains and...invent things...

I quite agree with your response though, whoever built this was both a genius AND spent several decades of his personal time making INCREDIBLY precise observations and records, at least long enough to observe the orbits of everything from Saturn inward several times to get the patterns accurately AND notice the elliptical trends of the orbits.
antialias_physorg
4.7 / 5 (18) Apr 04, 2011
We are to believe, according to modern atheists and mainstream archeologists and anthropologists that the linguist apostle Paul was a caveman, that Puma Punku was made without writing or Pythagorean theorem, and that the Pyramids were made through manual slave labor.

Huh? What has this weird list have anything to do with atheists (or archaeologists)?

Could you provide a rationale for such a claim?
maxcypher
4.9 / 5 (13) Apr 04, 2011
I wouldn't assume that the machine was made by one person nor that the same person(s) performed all the necessary computations that the device depended on. The artifact could be the result of many generations of workers/philosophers/astrologers studying the sky, performing calculations and designing the gearing.
Physmet
5 / 5 (14) Apr 04, 2011
Come now, @QC. The Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese, etc, etc, have been given credit for a long time for their brilliant thinking and inventiveness. Don't invent issues.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4 / 5 (21) Apr 04, 2011
The couldn't POSSIBLY have brains and...invent things...
Well, they invented your god and fabricated your bible, no mean feat.
Could you provide a rationale for such a claim?
He's a rabid religionist who is compelled to litter threads with his nonsense. Compulsion = pathology; 30-40 inane comments a day = pathology; lack of reason or logic and the impulse to make up outrageous numbers = pathology...etc.

I think we can conclude that QC has an affliction, without even considering his belief system. I'm sure its treatable but the question is, will he recognize it and seek help?

Your behavior reflects poorly on religionists in general QC, you know that right?
Thex1138
5 / 5 (4) Apr 04, 2011
Celecstial observations would take more than a single generation to accurately record and then having the knowledge transferred to a mechanical device.. which was the true genius.
Moebius
4 / 5 (9) Apr 04, 2011
I don't know which is more amazing, the mechanism itself or the astronomical knowledge it represents from so long ago.

It can't possibly be unique. Nothing so well formed, representing both mechanical and astronomical genius, could just spring from nothing. There must be much lost that predates this.
FrankHerbert
3 / 5 (18) Apr 04, 2011
Q_C is insane, lol.
sstritt
1.7 / 5 (3) Apr 04, 2011
Why wouldn't the design of a mechanism from this era reflect the Ptolemaic System of complications (epicycles) rather than special gears to account for elliptical orbits? Does this seem odd to anyone else?
bluehigh
2.5 / 5 (22) Apr 04, 2011
@Otto and FrankH and others

At least QC contributes to the discussion as opposed to those that just hurl insults.

I may not often agree with QC but not only will I defend his right to say it, I enjoy the provocation that makes us think, well at least for us that remain open minded.

bluehigh
2 / 5 (4) Apr 04, 2011
... was (used) to calculate the position of celestial bodies.

Why?

antialias_physorg
4.7 / 5 (12) Apr 04, 2011
At least QC contributes to the discussion as opposed to those that just hurl insults.

That's quite funny...since that is exactly what QC did in his post.
prometeomail
4.6 / 5 (9) Apr 04, 2011
antialias don't pay attention to Quantum_Conundrum and his anti-atheist paranoia, he literally floods the site accusing atheists of literally everything. Atheist relies in brainwashing for education... we are same than Muslims when it comes to antisemitism (Wt...heck???) etc...

Sorry Quantum_Conundrum but there is not such a "we atheist do...", no! we atheists are different with different opinions supporting different ideas. We do however share the opinion that there is not such a thing as deities, period... we are mostly free thinkers, nothing against Israel, brainwashing or any other conspiracy. Generalizing regarding theists on such topics just doesn't make sense. I have read many of your comments and I have liked many of your contributions, but please stop the anti-theist thing because you just lose credibility and it's a pity.

This mechanism is truly astonishing. Scientists (not atheist) require evidence before elaborating a theory, in this case the evidence is clear.
tkn
4.5 / 5 (4) Apr 04, 2011
I think the most overlooked Scientist of all times is archimedes. Whatever 'History' we have is all that escaped Romans. Who knows what else was there in ancient times. It was sheer luck that some1 found this particular object in a shipwreck near an island.. I am sure we have little idea of their knowledge and skills and technology.
prometeomail
5 / 5 (4) Apr 04, 2011
@Otto and FrankH and others

At least QC contributes to the discussion as opposed to those that just hurl insults.

I may not often agree with QC but not only will I defend his right to say it, I enjoy the provocation that makes us think, well at least for us that remain open minded.



I do enjoy many of his contribution but his comments regarding atheists are just "trolling" and it just destroys the credibility of the rest of his contributions. He can do so much better skipping his typical anti-atheist comment.
thewhitebear
4 / 5 (4) Apr 04, 2011
i'm with bluehigh visavis QC's comments, employing insults rather than logic only strengthens his arguments. As for the device i suspect it's only the tip of the technological iceberg of babylonian/greek culture. i wonder what else time has erased or hidden.
Bigblumpkin36
5 / 5 (2) Apr 04, 2011
See what the bible did it made civilization go backwards in time. We might as well have been living in caves during the dark ages. If only the bible wasn't written i wonder where we would be today.
apex01
5 / 5 (6) Apr 04, 2011
It was made by Ancient Aliens.

Source: History Channel :)
FCCIII
5 / 5 (1) Apr 04, 2011
Truly amazing piece of hardware, especially considering the detail work involved.

Oh yeah, religion, politics, left wing.
There, just in case someone forgot to put it in.
theskepticalpsychic
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 04, 2011
Fascinating. But you misspelled "others" in the first line of the article. "Other's" means "(of) other." It's the genitive case. The plural of other is "others" without an apostrophe, in the nominative. Just saying.
RobertKarlStonjek
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 04, 2011
I wonder how things would have progressed if the prototype wasn't lost at sea?

Would the Mk.II have been an I-Antikythera featuring clock, phone and games?
PaulRadcliff
3.8 / 5 (4) Apr 05, 2011
I think it is hilarious that some people believe ancient aliens gave special knowledge to primitive humans. Somehow our pathetic lot had to be nurtured by super-intelligent ET. How the benevolent space people came to possess this knowledge is never even brought to mind. Such a complicated and highly improbable theory to explain something so obviously simple. Our ancestors weren't so ignorant after all.
What one could accomplish in a single lifetime without the distraction of television, radio or modern mass murderous warfare!! Multiple dedicated and highly investigative minds could solve quite a few problems and come up with many ingenious mechanical means to copy the movements of the planets and the Sun and Moon. Even a benevolent deity is unnecessary for mankind to progress from barbarism into organized and sophisticated groups and orderly society.
Modern mankind has really mucked it up, but also has hope, through science and technology, to solve our vexing problems.
jamesrm
3.2 / 5 (5) Apr 05, 2011
Don't feed the Trool (Q'Kuntnumbum), remember the Religious disease he has is reinforced by non-followers, it makes him more feel more unique in the eyes of his crushed ego (god).

This is a typical religion/cult use of a weak mind, make the target/mark/idiot think he has a unique line on the truth so he thinks he is special.
Hook,line and sinker in Quants case :)

If he one day drops the Christian fascade he will probably take up Scientology and fell its alright to come out of the closet with Tom Cruise.

Rgds
James
Rdavid
not rated yet Apr 05, 2011
More amazing, as this device suggests, remains the human compulsion to explore and trade via the sea.
Yvan_Dutil
5 / 5 (3) Apr 05, 2011
At the time of the fabrication of this device, scientist had acces to a huge amount of astronomical observations collected by babylonian and other astronomers in the ancient world. The amazig thing is the gears, which is an almost unique exemple in those time. This would have been extremely expensive to produce because they were handcrafted.
eric96
1.2 / 5 (5) Apr 05, 2011
Old news. Heard about this eons ago.

88HUX88
not rated yet Apr 05, 2011
eons ago, yeah, I was there when it was made
CWonPhysOrg
3.5 / 5 (6) Apr 05, 2011
I have been fascinated by this device since I was exposed to it's existence in my teens (in the '60s). I have followed the research on it avidly, ever since.

I'd suggest a couple of conjectures:
1) The accuracy of the device was not derived from understanding of elliptical orbits, rather from decades-/centuries-long, recorded observations. Observation would yield the same result as understanding of the physical laws involved ... would it not?
2) Given conjecture #1, there is no need to imagine alien influence (or any effect by religion, atheists, deities or other (semi-) supra-normal belief).

The Antikythera device, to me, is a really cool proof that early mankind was a lot smarter than we give him credit for. In the absence of contradictory evidence ... can't we just leave it there?
dnatwork
not rated yet Apr 05, 2011
You all should have taken a course in the history of mathematics. Whoever built this thing did not do the observations themselves. This device reflects knowledge that was built up over thousands of years of recorded history, from Babylon, Egypt, and India to Greece. Yes, thousands; records of astronomical observations go back to at least 5000 BC. Then the Arabs sheltered, honored, and greatly expanded on this knowledge and the mathematics that was developed to explain the motions of the planets when Rome fell and the Christians held sway during the Dark Age in Europe. We in the West have our civilization only because Christians perpetrated the Crusades and stole everything they could from our more advanced neighbors in the Middle East.
dnatwork
4.5 / 5 (2) Apr 05, 2011
Yeah, I could have stopped at "5000 BC." I'm just so sick of people of any persuasion talking like they are better than other people with different beliefs.

Don't just claim you are better because you say you're friends with some dead or invisible person/prophet/god/philosopher/scientist/novelist/(you get the point yet?). Show you are better by doing better things and not talking about it so much.
rgwalther
1 / 5 (2) Apr 05, 2011
i wonder what else time has erased or hidden.


Want to know what has been hidden? Just ask the Vatican. A lot of ancient tech stuff was undoubtably destroyed, but fascists always keep records, even of their evil deeds.
ubavontuba
1 / 5 (2) Apr 05, 2011
Fun stuff:

Here's a cool book about the device and its discovery:

http://www.amazon...p;sr=1-1

Andrew Carol, an Apple engineer, created a cool Lego version:

http://www.fastco...ng-legos

So, why hasn't Dan Brown (author of The Da Vinci Code) written a thriller about this? Someone should.

ubavontuba
1 / 5 (2) Apr 07, 2011
I want that Lego set.
MNIce
1 / 5 (2) Apr 09, 2011
It's so typical. Some people sneer at one who expresses a different viewpoint, repeat bigoted myths of Vatican conspiracies to keep science out of the hands of the people or that the Bible and Christianity have retarded the development of society, and congratulate themselves on being free-thinking and open-minded.

The implication of the Antikythera discovery is that the common prejudice against everything old is unjustified. About 2000 years Before the Christian Era, long before the Greeks developed their geocentric cosmology; Job spoke of God hanging the earth on nothing, i. e., being in space with no mechanical connection to another body; and of the circular horizon between light and darkness, indicating that he knew the earth was a sphere. Isaiah wrote about 700 BCE that the Lord "sits above the circle (sphere) of the earth" and "stretches out the heavens," i. e., expands the universe - a fact rediscovered only in the last century. These are recorded in the oft-derided Bible.
WhiteJim
1 / 5 (1) Apr 10, 2011
If it was not for the dark ages that distroyed most of the human knowledge that had accumulated by then we would now be at least 1000 years ahead of where we are now in science and technology.
Chef
not rated yet Apr 10, 2011
Just read the article, and must say that the device is quite a feat of Human engineering, even for Mr. Wrights reproduction. Keeping religious ties out of this, most people need to understand the era of reasonings behind devices crafted so long ago. Survival played a big part and understanding the cycles of the night sky helped with that survival, mainly with agricultural growth windows. I can easily see where this device would be immensely helpful where if someone was traveling by ship or over land without an accurate time piece. They would just need to match the device to sky, and they would accurately know the date. They would then easily know when to start planting crops, or how much time they would have before winter set in.
bonehead
1 / 5 (1) Apr 21, 2011
I believe the point of QC's contention is that this flies in the face of evolutionary thinking about man's intellectual capability. Evolutionary thinking assumes that there is a natural progression of things from simple to more complex; things get better over time. This mentality portrays older cultures as primitive and simple. God made man as an intelligent being and many ancient civilization have fully demonstrated that they were capable of extraordinary accomplishments with simple tools. The fact that we now know how to forge steel or produce microprocessors does not make us any more intelligent than those civilizations. Many would argue the ease with which we can satisfy our needs of food and shelter have actually produced a less intelligent civilization.
frajo
5 / 5 (1) Apr 21, 2011
Evolutionary thinking assumes that there is a natural progression of things from simple to more complex; things get better over time.
No. Only simple-minded evolutionarists think so. And only simple-minded anti-evolutionarists think that all evolutionarists are simple-minded.
This mentality portrays older cultures as primitive and simple.
The mentality of the simple-minded, yes.

many ancient civilization have fully demonstrated that they were capable of extraordinary accomplishments with simple tools.
Yes.

The fact that we now know how to forge steel or produce microprocessors does not make us any more intelligent than those civilizations.
Yes.

Many would argue the ease with which we can satisfy our needs of food and shelter have actually produced a less intelligent civilization.
"Intelligence" is an alleged feature of humans and not of civilizations.
The rise of civilizations enabled the more intelligent people to survive longer than before.