These days, we’re all totally into our smart phones and tablet PCs, and their multiplicity of ingenious apps. But apparently, the 2nd Century BC Greeks had handheld gadgets, too. One intriguing example of Hellenic mobile technology remains: the Antikythera Mechanism, found slightly more than a century ago in the wreck of a Roman ship off the Greek island of Atikythera. The device, roughly the size of a phone book, contains an intricate array of 37 gears more complex than anything that Europeans would create for the next millennium or so.
Archaeologists puzzled over the device’s function until science historian Derek J. de Solla Price published a 1959 article in Scientific American, proposing that the Antikythera Mechanism was perhaps the world’s first analog computer, designed to make astronomical calculations. In 1974, Price published a more detailed, 70-page article, “Gears from the Greeks,” in the American Philosophical Society journal, in which he further deconstructed the device’s workings, and how its parts were used to calculate the movements of the Sun and Moon.
In recent years, scientists from the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project have used x-ray scanning and imaging technology to scrutinize the gadget even more minutely. As this 2008 Scientific American article details, they found that the device was even more complex than previously believed, and that it even contained a sort of users’ manual, inscribed into its bronze. The Antikythera Mechanism was capable of a variety of astronomical calculations, such as predicting eclipses and tracking the movements of the visible solar system, but on another level it also apparently functioned as a calendar, calculating the time interval between ancient Olympiads. The researchers also found evidence that links the device’s design to the ancient Greek scientist Archimedes (who in legend took a bath and discovered that the amount of displaced water is a measure of volume).
It’s possible that the Antikythera Mechanism contains even more secrets. “We have used the latest technology available to understand this mechanism, yet the technological quality in this mechanism puts us to shame,” Mike Edmunds, a professor of astronomy from Cardiff University, told the Associated Press in 2008. “If the ancient Greeks made this, what else could they do?”
Researchers plan to hold a symposium this spring in Athens, where they may discuss new findings about the device. In the meantime, though, we can marvel at this replica of the device, constructed from Lego blocks.