The Antikythera Mechanism: A Mystery of the Ancient World

Antikythera, in Greece, was once a busy shipping lane. Now, several millennia after the time of the Ancient Greeks, divers have returned to a shipwreck which holds hidden treasures. The wreck in question was first discovered in the 20th Century. Amongst the remains of the vessel, the divers found jewellery, statues, and a strange bronze object. This is known as the Antikythera mechanism, and consists of a series of geared wheels, an invention that wasn’t be seen until over a thousand years later where they appeared in astronomical clocks in Medieval Europe. It’s thought that the mechanism was used to track the cycles of the Solar System, and was created in about 150BC. A picture of the mechanism can be seen below:

The Antikythera mechanism in its original state at the Archeological Museum in Athens. Found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/jul/30/archaeology.astronomy

The Antikythera mechanism in its original state at the Archeological Museum in Athens. Found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/jul/30/archaeology.astronomy

The exact workings of this incredible machine are still a mystery, but dedicated research is being undertaken into how it originally functioned, and what it was used for. Michael Wright, the former senior creator of the Science Museum of London spent many years studying the mechanism, and has produced a model illustrating how he believes it to have worked.  This model of the device shows the movement of the five planets know to the Greeks at the time, and also the movement of the moon. Turning a handle on the side of the device causes the rotation of pointers corresponding to the relative position of the heavenly bodies. On the reverse side of the model, needles track the months according to the cycle of the moon, and also a cycle of four years (corresponding to the Olympic Games).

Michael Wright's model of the Antikythera mechanism. Found at: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images.

Michael Wright’s model of the Antikythera mechanism. Found at: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images.

Watch this short video showing Michael Wright explaining his model, an giving an amazing insight into the workings of the Antikythera mechanism.

Hewlitt-Packard and X-Tek Systems have taken incredibly detailed x-ray images of the device, and it was they who discovered the markings indicating the dial which records the Olympics. The video in the link below shows the very high resolution scans taken of the Antikythera mechanism:

http://www.computerhistory.org/revolution/calculators/1/42/2249

The x-ray analysis also confirmed that the mechanism had 32 gears, and that it could accurately predict solar and lunar eclipses as well as modern devices. It is often refered to as the World’s First Computer!

CT

An x-ray scan of the Antikythera mechanism showing the geared wheels which were so ahead of its time.

Of course, this has provoked many conspiracy theories about aliens delivering advanced technology to Earth, but a more plausible explanation is that the famous Greek mathematician Archimedes, or the astronomer Hipparchus, since it incorporates his theory for the motion of the moon.

Whatever the truth about this incredible device, it is amongst those which are constantly making historians and scientists alike question how much we actually know about ancient civilisations.

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