The incredible inner workings of ancient Antikythera mechanism explained
The Antikythera mechanism is one of the most amazing mechanical devices discovered from the ancient world. For decades, scientists have utilized the latest technology in attempts to decipher its functionality; however, due to its complexity, its true purpose and function remained elusive. But in the last few years, a number of scientists appear to have solved the mystery as to precisely how this incredible piece of technology once worked.
The ancient device was discovered in 1900 during the recovery of a shipwreck near the Greek island, Antikythera, in waters 60 meters deep. It is a metallic device which consists of a complex combination of gears, and dates back to the 1 st or 2 nd century BCE. X-rays have shown that there are at least 30 different types of gears used in the device, and on the mechanism’s door plates are about 2,000 letters that are considered to be something like a usage manual.
The amazing device, which some believe was inspired by the famous inventor and mathematician Archimedes, is so complex that many consider the Antikythera mechanism to be the first human-made analogue computer. Derek de Solla Price, who analysed it in the 1960s, said the discovery was like finding an internal combustion engine in Tutankhamen’s tomb.
For all the enquiring minds, Peter Lynch, professor of meteorology at University College Dublin, has now explained what this machine was for and exactly how it worked .
Professor Lynch writes: “The mechanism was driven by a handle that turned a linked system of more than 30 gear wheels. Using modern imaging techniques, it is possible to count the teeth on the wheels, see which cog meshes with which and what are the gear ratios. These ratios enable us to figure out what the mechanism was computing.
The gears were coupled to pointers on the front and back of the mechanism, showing the positions of the sun, moon and planets as they moved through the zodiac. An extendable arm with a pin followed a spiral groove, like a record player stylus. A small sphere, half white and half black, indicated the phase of the moon.
Even more impressive was the prediction of solar and lunar eclipses. It was known to the Babylonians that if a lunar eclipse is observed, a similar event occurs 223 full moons later. This period of about 19 years is known as the Saros cycle. It required complex mathematical reasoning and technology to implement the cycle in the mechanism.”
Amazingly, the device even included a dial to indicate which of the pan-Hellenic games would take place each year, with the Olympics occurring every fourth year. Just one small cog out of 30 remains a mystery and it is hoped that further research can place this last piece in the puzzle.
It is incredible to consider that it took hundreds of researchers decades to reach this far in understanding its capabilities. We consider ourselves advanced now, but in reality we rely on computers more than ever to make complex computations which ancient people managed to calculate manually. The brilliance of the Antikythera mechanism should revolutionise our thinking about the scientific legacy of the Greeks.