Antikythera. I’m pronouncing it something like “Auntie – Kithera”. Hope that’s close.
Antikythera is actually a place. It’s a small island off the southern coast of Greece and north of Crete. In 1900-1901 sponge divers stumbled upon, underwater that is, an ancient shipwreck filled with interesting antiquities – the first thing they spotted was a bronze arm from a statue.
This is amazing. I mean, we don’t really think of sponges as something to dive for as we just get sponges from the supermarket; at least that’s where I buy sponges. I particularly like the kind that have a piece of that scratchy scotch-bright stuff on the back – green scotch-bright is best IMHO. I think you can also get those sponges at the Dollar Store. And when they start wearing out here’s what you do; you put them in the dishwasher and it sort of rejuvenates them. I say sort of, because they’re not really good as new, but you can use them for like maybe, another week or two.
Anyhow, after their sponge-dive they reported the shipwreck to the authorities and it was excavated the next year. I’m not sure how successful their sponge diving was and I couldn’t find any reference to it on the internet but I hope they had a good dive, because the rest of the stuff on that ship was priceless.
They found statues, urns, amphori, (I love that word amphora – one of these days I’m going to go get a bunch of amphori for the kitchen and bath), and a weird looking little chunk of bronze that clearly was some sort of geared mechanism.
Since these were expert, brilliant, archeologist type-people they knew this thing was special so they called it the Antikythera Mechanism, since it was clearly some kind of gadget or geared toy or something cool, and they carefully preserved it because as soon as they got it out of the water it started to disintegrate kind of like in the wizard of Oz movie when the Wicked Witch of the West disintegrated as soon as Dorothy splashed her with water, but in reverse, since this thing started to disintegrate when it was removed from the water. Bronze. Lasts a long, long time.
Ends up this thing is more insanely cool than anyone could even imagine, what’s more conceive of. It took us plebeian modern people until 2005 to even be capable of scanning the innards of this thing only to discover that it was a kind of astronomical geared computer of absolutely amazing complexity and sophistication. I might attempt to verbalize what this thing is all about, but sometime a You-Tube video is worth ten-thousand words.
Phases of the moon, eclipses, position of the planets, locations and times of the Olympic Games: Oh my!
OK. Awesome. But it gets even nuttier so stay with me.
Original speculation was that it was built around 80 BC but guess what? Wrong. New insights, and I mean like last month this came out, it is more ancient than that! Might even trace its lineage back to the mighty genius of Greek mathematics and practical engineering, Archimedes!
“After several years of studying the mechanism and Babylonian records of eclipses, the collaborators have pinpointed the date when the mechanism was timed to begin—205 B.C. This suggests the mechanism is 50–100 years older than most researchers in the field have thought.
The new work fills a gap in ancient scientific history by indicating that the Greeks were able to predict eclipses and engineer a highly complex machine—sometimes called the world’s first computer—at an earlier stage than believed. It also supports the idea that the eclipse prediction scheme was not based on Greek trigonometry (which was nonexistent in 205 B.C.)—but on Babylonian arithmetical methods, borrowed by the Greeks.
Far more conjecturally, this timing also makes an old story told by Cicero more plausible—that a similar mechanism was created by Archimedes and carried back to Rome by the Roman general Marcellus, after the sack of Syracuse and the death of Archimedes in 212 B.C. If the Antikythera mechanism did indeed use an eclipse predictor that worked best for a cycle starting in 205 BC, the likely origin of this machine is tantalizingly close to the lifetime of Archimedes.”
Naturally, expert crafts-persons of today are keen to make copies and there are some really great reproductions and cool computer models. You can find a ton of stuff on You-Tube. Here’s one:
And now, with your indulgence, I’d like to do a little editorializing. If you prefer not to hear a curmudgeonly old engineer rant, you may skip the following without missing, really, much of anything about the amazing Antikythera Mechanism. If you want to keep reading, here we go…but get ready for some Zeus-like verbal thunder bolts and lightning strikes!
Two monumentally imbecilic questions are asked about this very cool little thing that just send me into a veritable temper-tantrum. Question 1: Who could have made such a cool toy way back then…. Question 2: What was it for????
PAHLESE!!!! (Alan, take a deep breath – these people are civilians…).
ok Ok OK OKAY!
Here goes. Deep breath. Calming self. (Find the neutral mind!)
I’ve got a pet peeve about this stuff. Ancient peoples, the old-timers, they were smart. Take Archimedes. Amazing mind. Invented a kind of calculus called the method of exhaustion; before Greek Trigonometry! And the Greeks. Read their philosophers. Read their mathematicians. Read their historians – we’re doing Herodotus on this blog right now. Smart people. Sophisticated people of fine taste. People of refinement, culture and splendid self-discipline and learning. The typical modern person? Vulgar. Unrefined. Ignorant. Check your television and newspaper for ample examples or Google Walmart Shoppers.
The Babylonians. Smart people. Expert mathematicians, expert astronomers. Their astronomy done by line of sight, and their observations, considering all done without benefit of magnification were quite precise. Ancient Egyptians. Smart. Very smart. Built pyramids. Did brain surgery. You heard me. Brain surgery.
We modern people suffer from a kind of cultural chauvinism toward ancient peoples that for some reason or another just irritates the hell out of me. These ancient people were very smart – we are separated forever from them by the dark ages. So let me, with my particular bias, which I’ve made clear, answer Question 1.
How did they do it? Simple. Let’s break it down. Clearly they knew how to do the calculations separate from the mechanism to predict such phenomena. The ancient Greeks were like sponges, they learned a lot from the Babylonians and Egyptians. Incidentally, if you are at all interested how the Greeks picked up on Babylonian and Egyptian mathematics, a good starting place is Morris Kline’s three volume set “The History of Mathematics“. But bottom line, the ancients knew perfectly well how to do these sorts of predictions, with reasonable accuracy, without the Antikythera
And the Greeks were practical sorts of people, and always making stuff (like amphori – the ancient Corinthians for example made a type of black and white illustrated vase that was prized all over the Mediterranean – put them on the map and made them and their great city a ton of dough) and exporting it and figuring out new stuff to make and make money off of. So there is a long lineage of unknown, unsung crafts-persons making all sorts of stuff to sell.
Well. Somebody figures out how to do a moon-phase gear-train. They add something else. They sell a couple and make some money – maybe real money. And they start adding more stuff, figuring out how to do things like planetary cycles. All this sort of thing is basically in polar coordinates, that is, circular. It can be geared. Absolutely it can be geared. It’s watch making.
Before we had digital computers, we had geared analog computers. I used to have to, on occasion, work on figuring out geared analog computers for a job I once had. These devices were used to calculate loads on ships and airplanes and since it was military / government work, some of those things were still out there and we had to repair / rebuild them. No one knew how. The people in the know had retired.
So, my department and I in manufacturing engineering had to reverse engineer them. Painful, but not impossible. We figured it out. They were kind of like really simple Antikythera Mechanisms. So I can, from a very personal standpoint, see how starting from a simple mechanism and building it up so to speak, that more and more complex mechanisms could evolve. Anonymous ancient peoples, their reputations long buried in the sands of time, but dedicated to their craft and brilliant, built these things. They were, meticulous crafts-persons; they knew what they were doing.
I guess what irritates me is that by expressing wonder at just who could have done such a thing, we are tacitly saying we think the Greeks were not smart or sophisticated enough to do such a thing; you know, (nudge nudge) with their primitive technology – though somehow they did manage to built it. Sometimes I am ashamed to be counted as a modern human. I cannot find words to express my contempt for such an asinine question, a question posed with a practically infinite degree of equal parts arrogance and ignorance. I am becoming angry again. Excuse me a moment.
Ok. Dumb-assed Question 2; “Why did they do it?” For gosh sakes only a state-employed academic, a precious sort, perhaps one who has never had to actually work at making something in order to make a buck, to make a living, could ask such a stupid, pointless question. THEY DID IT FOR THE MONEY! Period. It was an awesome consumer item like an expensive watch, that rich people would pay huge dollar for.
Yes, I went to University, after all I’m a mechanical engineer. And being relatively poor and not too terribly clever, I had to work my way through – and I love asking friends who had found themselves in similar circumstances, how they made it through school and what sort of work they did. Lots did food-service jobs and tell me tons of wonderful stories. I never worked in food service. I certainly never worked on campus.
I worked on construction crews. I did concrete construction and learned to lay brick and block. I certainly know what it means to have to make something to make a buck. I still make stuff and my entire adult life have had to make stuff to make a buck. I’ve done that, and I’ve played music, to make a living. It really pisses me off when some leisure-class ass “wonders” why people make things.
Now that I have that off my chest; let’s make peace. I certainly do appreciate the fine work the academic archeologists have done. Know what a free-market self-employed archeologist is called? A grave robber! A great friend of ours was over today for a rehearsal and he had just finished his DMA (Doctor of Music Degree at University). A tremendous intellectual achievement. I really don’t mean to demean or diminish intellectual and cultural achievements of our day. My real motivation is to expand our thinking with regards to the ancients – they were awesome – they did cool stuff, and they made a ton of money at it. Kind of like our space program. A real hallmark that we will be remembered for, among other things (forget about Walmart…).
Flash update on Sponge Diving!
Ends up I was wrong about it. Sponge from the abyss is still in demand as cosmetic appliques among other interesting things!
So much to know… so much to learn.
Right on Greg!
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Thanks Jeremy. It is a cool device and if you check out videos of watchmakers today, they note the ancient Greeks did some things differently than traditional European watchmakers.
Wow, what an interesting find and seems like Ancient Greece was pretty happenin’!
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I think huge portions of that time period have simply been lost in the rough-and-tumble of history and what we see from fragments of writings, a few archeological finds, and the occasional shipwreck are only the tip of the iceberg of the achievements of the ancient Greeks.