Lego Antikythera Mechanism

Friday, December 10th, 2010

It was just a matter of time until someone replicated the ancient Antikythera Mechanism in Lego:

Addendum: I found more detailed design information.

Decoding the Heavens

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

James McCormick heartily recommends Jo Marchant’s new book on the anachronistic Antikythera mechanism, Decoding the Heavens:

Science writer Jo Marchant provides the first comprehensive book on the device in the last 35 years, a substantial expansion of her 2006 summary article in Nature (In search of lost time, Nature 444, 534-538 (30 November 2006) | doi:10.1038/444534a) which includes the dramatic new discoveries about the mechanism published in 2008. Decoding the Heavens recounts how each generation of archaeologists examined the mechanism and made judgments about what it was and what it did. The story of the men and women who devoted years trying to discover the nature and purpose of the object binds the scientific tale together, often in tragic ways. Science can be a blood sport and the Antikythera brought out the best and worst in many of its students. Our most recent understanding of the mechanism dramatically changes our beliefs about the role of Greek technology in subsequent Muslim and Christian mechanical devices. Hundreds or perhaps thousands of similar devices were subject to damage, loss, and the re-melting of their brass components. The Antikythera mechanism is one-of-a-kind and that, in itself, is a sobering piece of information about the implosion of culture and technology in late antiquity.

In the end, it was the development of non-destructive testing methods (photography, linear X-ray tomography, microfocus computer tomography, polynomial texture mapping ) that finally allowed the most recent generation of scholars and enthusiasts to precisely determine how the device was assembled and operated without irreversibly damaging the fragile remains. Such space-age technology provided an exact means to measure the components, the associated gear teeth and read the faint inscriptions on metal surfaces, even when the metal parts were buried in limestone and largely corroded away. And it was the assembly of an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists, astronomers, artisans, and historians of science that permits some level of confidence in the latest conclusions.

At the margins, the final few details of the operation and function will remain under debate. Did the Antikythera draw upon centuries-long records of Babylonian star-gazing? Was the Antikythera device an astrological tool for elite Greeks and Romans? Was it a functional demonstration of the philosophical orderliness of the universe (especially that of eclipses)? Was this the grand achievement of the final generations of hyper-literate Greek Stoics before Rome dominated the eastern Mediterranean? Where was it made and what relationship did it have to the devices we know were created by Archimedes in Syracuse [Sicily]? Cicero described one as “a sphere that showed the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets around the Earth.” Knowing what the device did promises to open up new questions of why elite Greeks wanted to make it.

Scientists Crack Secrets Of 2,000-year-old Astronomical Computer

Monday, August 4th, 2008

Professor Mike Edmunds of the School of Physics and Astronomy and mathematician Dr Tony Freeth of Cardiff University have unraveled the secrets of the 2,000-year-old Antikythera Mechanism:

The calculator was able to follow the movements of the moon and the sun through the Zodiac, predict eclipses and even recreate the irregular orbit of the moon. The team believe it may also have predicted the positions of the planets.

The findings suggest that Greek technology was far more advanced than previously thought. No other civilisation is known to have created anything as complicated for another thousand years.

Antikythera Replica

Monday, March 17th, 2008

A loyal reader — Howdy, Cate! — decided to swing by the American Computer Museum in Bozeman, Montana, when she realized that a replica of the Antikythera Mechanism was there.

Evidently it’s a “nightmare” to photograph — “stuck in a corner with poor lighting” — but this photo looks pretty good to me. Note that they put plastic in place of the original bronze plates to make the internal mechanisms visible to non-Kryptonians.

Mysteries of computer from 65BC are solved

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

Mysteries of computer from 65BC are solved:

Using modern computer x-ray tomography and high resolution surface scanning, a team led by Mike Edmunds and Tony Freeth at Cardiff University peered inside fragments of the crust-encased mechanism and read the faintest inscriptions that once covered the outer casing of the machine. Detailed imaging of the mechanism suggests it dates back to 150-100 BC and had 37 gear wheels enabling it to follow the movements of the moon and the sun through the zodiac, predict eclipses and even recreate the irregular orbit of the moon. The motion, known as the first lunar anomaly, was developed by the astronomer Hipparcus of Rhodes in the 2nd century BC, and he may have been consulted in the machine’s construction, the scientists speculate.

Remarkably, scans showed the device uses a differential gear, which was previously believed to have been invented in the 16th century. The level of miniaturisation and complexity of its parts is comparable to that of 18th century clocks.

This “computer” is the famous Antikythera Mechanism, so named because it was recovered from a shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera.

In fact, the only reason we have the mechanism today is that it sunk under 42 meters of water:

One of the remaining mysteries is why the Greek technology invented for the machine seemed to disappear. No other civilisation is believed to have created anything as complex for another 1,000 years. One explanation could be that bronze was often recycled in the period the device was made, so many artefacts from that time have long ago been melted down and erased from the archaelogical record. The fateful sinking of the ship carrying the Antikythera Mechanism may have inadvertently preserved it. “This device is extraordinary, the only thing of its kind,” said Professor Edmunds. “The astronomy is exactly right … in terms of historic and scarcity value, I have to regard this mechanism as being more valuable than the Mona Lisa.”

The Antikythera Mechanism

Friday, October 21st, 2005

The clockwork computer describes the Antikythera mechanism:

When a Greek sponge diver called Elias Stadiatos discovered the wreck of a cargo ship off the tiny island of Antikythera in 1900, it was the statues lying on the seabed that made the greatest impression on him. He returned to the surface, removed his helmet, and gabbled that he had found a heap of dead, naked women. The ship’s cargo of luxury goods also included jewellery, pottery, fine furniture, wine and bronzes dating back to the first century BC. But the most important finds proved to be a few green, corroded lumps — the last remnants of an elaborate mechanical device.

The Antikythera mechanism, as it is now known, was originally housed in a wooden box about the size of a shoebox, with dials on the outside and a complex assembly of bronze gear wheels within. X-ray photographs of the fragments, in which around 30 separate gears can be distinguished, led the late Derek Price, a science historian at Yale University, to conclude that the device was an astronomical computer capable of predicting the positions of the sun and moon in the zodiac on any given date. A new analysis, though, suggests that the device was cleverer than Price thought, and reinforces the evidence for his theory of an ancient Greek tradition of complex mechanical technology.