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The mechanism of Antikythera: The thing from another world

Scientists have unravelled this find from a shipwreck: It is a 2000 year old stellar computer, which appears to have travelled back through time.

The Antikythera Mechanism in a reconstruction of the original astronomical computer
Picture by Antikythera Mechanism Project

"This is undoubtedly a piece of unbelievable engineering skill by the ancient Greeks, but it just does not fit in with the Ancient World 2100 years ago", explains the British physicist Professor Mike Edmunds in our interview: "According to our current standard of knowledge, a machine like this would not have been developed before the Middle Ages, around the time of Leonardo da Vinci." Prof. Edmunds almost sounds like one of the scientists out of Andreas Eschbachs time journey bestseller, in which the archaeologists uncover an ancient video camera on a dig in Israel: even in the book the find is actually 2000 years old, it is just that not surprisingly it has lost nothing of the era with which it was associated. The essential difference between Eschbachs and Edmunds tales: the story that the British physicist is telling is true.

A Greek cargo ship sunk with a mechanical computer in the waters of the island of Antikythera
Picture by Antikythera Mechanism Project

In the year 1901, alongside jewellery, silver coins and amphora, sponge divers off the coast of the Greek Mediterranean island Antikythera discovered a machine made of bronze cogs from the second century B.C 41 metres deep in an ancient shipwreck. And this contraption has left archaeologists and physicists worldwide in awe for more than 100 years. After all, on first glance the find is almost as unbelievable as finding the remains of a fake Rolex in a dig for the Chinese Tang Dynasty around 700 A.D.

Description details on the invaluable Antikythera Mechanism which is said to have been made by Hipparchus
Picture by Antikythera Mechanism Project

With the help of x-ray apparatus and using a 7.5 tonne computer tomography, which had to be specially made in the Greek state museum in Athens because the priceless piece could not be transported, scientists have elicited a few secrets from the mechanism of Antikythera in the last few hundred years. By means of special computer software, professor Edmunds Team has now deciphered part of the operating instructions, stamped on the mechanism in ancient Greek. What is known is this: the machine was able to determine the course of the sun, moon and known planets. It subdivided the year into 365 days and even made allowances for a leap year every four years. It was able to predict eclipses of the moon and sun, as well as the appearance of particular zodiac signs in the starry sky. All of that by a phenomenal sophisticated gear mechanism consisting of probably 37 gears: a mechanic supercomputer that is unique among the finds from this time and clarifies the fact that at that time people knew about the spherical shape of the Earth.

How the Greeks were able to produce such an instrument, using technology that one cannot simply just come up with just like that, but that probably required several generations of experience as a blacksmith, and why this knowledge appeared to be completely lost and not rediscovered until the year 1400, one can only make speculations about, which show, however, that the astrological timepiece has probably not travelled through time.

The astonishingly accurate gears of the Antikythera Mechanism in the laser scan
Picture by Antikythera Mechanism Project

In his texts, Romes politician Cicero described an instrument by the Greek astronomer Posidonius, with which he "can produce the movements of the sun, moon and five planets at every rotation". Many historians took this passage to be an exaggeration by the author. But Cicero must really have seen the machine: In around 130 B.C. the genius mathematician and astronomer Hipparchus worked in Rhodes. There he ran a school of astronomy for academics and one of his pupils was the famous Posidonius. What goes perfectly in hand with this puzzle is the fact that based on its cargo, that ship, which sank off Antikythera, must have come from the island of Rhodes.

Prof. Mike Edmunds and his team found new details in the Antikythera Mechanism
Picture by Antikythera Mechanism Project

It is very lucky that the mechanism went swimming with this ship 2000 years ago. Professor Edmunds: "Bronze was a valuable material which was constantly recycled. If something was no longer needed or used, it would have been melted down and recycled. The Romans who back then also took over power in Greece, had little interest in such detached things as astronomy, which is why this science must have simply died out. But at that time there were probably other very different unbelievable instruments. And I get dizzy thinking about what else these Greeks were probably able to do 2000 years ago."

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© A report by Tobias Micke (17-12-06) – Contact