The Antikythera time machine

Jun 11, 2012 By Jenny Winder, Universe Today
Part of the Antikythera Mechanism, by Marsyas via Wikimedia Commons

Leonardo da Vinci may have left behind sketches of helicopters, tanks and submarines but it is rare that we find actual artifacts that seem so way ahead of their time. Almost like a science fiction tale of archaeologists finding a wristwatch buried deep in an Egyptian pyramid or motorcar under the foundations of Stonehenge, we do have an example of a scientific computer that was built between 150 and 100 BC. It was so advanced, nothing as complex would be developed again until the 14th century.

The Antikythera mechanism was lost to the world for centuries. The device was salvaged in 1900 from a ship that sank en route to Rome, in the 1st century BC, between Crete and the island of Antikythera in the Mediterranean. When one of the fragments was discovered to contain a bronze gear wheel, the idea that this was some kind of astronomical clock was dismissed as too fantastic an anachronism. It was not until 1951 that the investigation was picked up by a British science historian Derek J. de Solla Price. So far 82 fragments have been recovered of what is now considered the oldest known astronomical computer.

The device is made of bronze and contains 30 gears though it may have had as many as 72 originally. Each gear was meticulously hand cut with between 15 and 223 triangular teeth, which were the key to discovering the mechanism’s various functions. It was based on theories of astronomy and mathematics developed by Greek astronomers who may have drawn from earlier Babylonian astronomical theories and its construction could be attributed to the astronomer Hipparchus or, more likely, Archimedes the famous Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor and astronomer. Why it was built, or for whom is unknown.

Replica Antikythera Based on the research of Professor Derek de Solla Price, in collaboration with the National Scientific Research Center Demokritos and physicist CH Karakalos. image by Marsyas via Wikimedia Commons

The main front dial showed the 365 day Egyptian year and the Greek signs of the Zodiac and could be adjusted to compensate for the extra quarter day in the solar year. The dial probably bore three hands that marked the date and positions of the Sun and Moon, while a separate mechanism showed the Moon’s phases and it likely also displayed the 5 classically known planets, Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn.

On the back an upper dial showed 19 year Metonic cycle of Moon phases, the 76 year Callippic cycle (four Metonic cycles) and calculated the 4 year Olympic cycle (four games took place in two and four year cycles) The lower dial showed the 18 year 11 days Saros eclipse cycle and the 54 year 33 day Exeligmos or triple saros cycle. It was driven by a hand crank now sadly lost. It is small, compact and portable with full instructions engraved upon it in Greek, about 95% of which have now been deciphered.

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The fragile pieces that remain have been examined and modeled using high-resolution X-ray tomography and gamma rays and various reconstructions and replicas have been built. It has even had a working model constructed out of Lego. I can’t helping thinking that Archimedes would have rather liked Lego, if only we could go back in time and give him a set…

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User comments : 7

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foolspoo
1.3 / 5 (12) Jun 11, 2012
Whats with the sensationalist title
ahmedgnz
4.5 / 5 (17) Jun 11, 2012
What sensasionalism? The Antikythera mechanism is a machine that calculates time, ergo, a time machine. The title is a bit of fun intended to trip and wake up the more literal minded amongst us.
DaFranker
2 / 5 (9) Jun 11, 2012
Whats with the sensationalist title

Didn't you notice? None of the article writers on this site have any idea what they're writing about, and they much prefer sensationalist titles and extravagant declarations to logic and truth.

However, as ahmed pointed out, this particular title isn't so bad. It's actually in good taste.
gmurphy
4.5 / 5 (2) Jun 12, 2012
It's fascinating to see mathematical operations being derived from gear combinations, an incredible feat for some clever engineer in the distant past, kudos.
islatas
4.7 / 5 (3) Jun 12, 2012
This machine has always amazed me. It's fascinating how much has been uncovered about it in the last decade.

I wish writers of these types of articles wouldn't speak in such absolute terms. No one knows if anything like this was built afterwards or not. They may not have been found yet or do not exist anymore. Being a builder of things myself, I find it extremely unlikely that this was the only machine of its kind. It's far more likely that less durable and more easily crafted materials (i.e. wood) were used first or more prevalently. It's extremely unlikely that a machine of this sophistication was the first example or the last.
antialias_physorg
4.5 / 5 (2) Jun 12, 2012
Didn't you notice? None of the article writers on this site have any idea what they're writing about, and they much prefer sensationalist titles and extravagant declarations to logic and truth.

You may notice that the title (and text) is simply taken from the original story from 'Universe Today' linked at the bottom.

Physorg is an aggregation site. It does not produce original content/articles (with the limited manpower they have, I think it's 6 people or so, you can't expect them to).
FroShow
5 / 5 (2) Jun 13, 2012
If any of you are fascinated by this:
I had recently watched a BBC documentary on the Antikythera machine. I would strongly recommend going to ezRSS.it and doing a search for: "The Two Thousand Year Old Computer" (if you torrent, that is).

The documentary goes into some detail of the function of the machine; which is far greater and more complex than what is described here, or shown in the Lego duplicate. It also impresses that there are less uncertainties than suggested by this article.

I'm glad they posted this article, because more people should have the chance to know about this remarkable piece of lost history.