Antikythera Mechanism, from Wikipedia.org
I heard about this mechanism some years ago. At first the speculation was it was an “ancient computer,” but no description of it was given. That was fantastic enough. “The ancient Greeks created a computer? Come on!” In the last several years it’s been described definitively as an astronomical computer. Pat_S over at tammybruce.com wrote a post on Christmas Eve on the latest research results. (Note: This site normally devotes itself to political topics. Just so you know.) There are a few great videos you can watch from there. The video over at Nature Magazine’s website is pretty interesting (there are links to this from Pat_S’s article).
The mechanism was discovered in a Roman shipwreck, off the island of Antikythera in the Mediterranean. The ship was bringing treasures from the Greek world. It’s estimated the mechanism was made in 140 BC. At first it appeared to be just a lump of rock (the mechanism was encased in it). It was pretty much ignored. Then one day the material split, and someone was able to see what looked like gears inside. Recently researchers started using sophisticated X-Ray technology with it, and they’ve been able to get a very detailed view of how the mechanism worked. They’ve even gotten detailed views of writing that was embossed into the parts.
The mechanism has a sophistication that has excited researchers. It’s way beyond what historians thought the Greeks were capable of. It has a compactness of design that was not duplicated by later, similar mechanisms, which only appeared about 1,400 years after it’s estimated this device was made.
This is an exciting find. I would rank it up there with the discovery of the Archimedes Palimpsest, which reveals some things about Archimedes’s mathematical knowledge. This was also quite stunning.
I recently wrote a post on the computers and designs that Charles Babbage created, and I said that when I was in Jr. high school he was the earliest creator of mechanical computers I had found. What I did not say (though I talked about it in an earlier post) is that when I was in high school, I had found out about an earlier mechanism, the Pascaline, invented by Blaise Pascal in 1642, though it was much simpler. It was an adding machine. In terms of the sophistication of computing devices, the Antikythera Mechanism bests everything before Babbage, as far as we know, who began his work on automatic computers in 1821.
The Middle Ages has been an interesting time in history for me, particularly as it contrasts with the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. The lesson we can learn from looking at this history is that progress is not necessarily linear and inevitable. Archimedes, it turns out, discovered some principles of Calculus 1,900 years before Newton, but that knowledge was eventually forgotten sometime in the Middle Ages. A story I heard about why this knowledge died out in the Western world was that Archimedes’s work was considered sacrosanct. He was “the great master” of mathematics, and no one was allowed to question his work, or try to improve on it. So his knowledge was just handed down from generation to generation, for centuries. It became dead, because it wasn’t presented as a “live” subject, something that could grow and evolve. Eventually it became devalued and forgotten. Newton rediscovered this knowledge of Calculus through his own work with mathematics about 500 years after it passed out of people’s knowledge base.
If you read about the works of Hero (or “Heron”) of Alexandria (10-70 AD), you’ll find that he discovered some basic principles of steam power, and jet propulsion. Again, knowledge that was lost (or kept, but ignored) for 1,700 years, and then reacquired, and advanced. I understand that the reason this particular area of knowledge was not advanced in society when it was discovered, at least by modern analysis, is that the Roman society that Heron lived in (though Heron was Greek) had no social use for advanced steam power. Not that advanced technology was developed, but there was no incentive to take it to the next level. For one thing they had slaves to do the work, and this was an institution that was useful to the Romans for maintaining their dominance over other cultures. It would take a modern, reformed understanding of political power and economics to make advanced steam power something that was useful and accepted by society.
It’s a humbling thing to realize that knowledge that could be advanced, even today, can be lost for hundreds of years, even if it is documented, and available for others to learn. It’s a fragile thing. It’s also kind of discouraging that knowledge is not always applied to societal progress, because the social/cultural environment is not compatible with it. It has to wait for a later age, and perhaps be forgotten and rediscovered.