I just learned from Jason Colavito that PBS NOVA the other day aired a documentary about the unraveling of one of the incredible enigmas of antiquity. And naming it after the German code machine isn’t a bad idea either, considering that this device is a marvel of gears and other mechanisms all working together.
This was about the Antikythera mechanism (and I did spell that right before double-checking), a device lost at sea off a Greek island some time in the early-middle 1st century BCE. It has a complex of gears, many lost, and the rest badly corroded by sitting in the briny deep for two millennia. First discovered in 1901, it has taken some of the most advanced technology to date to understand this ancient machine, a chiasm of history it would seem.
What has been figured is that it is the earliest example known of a computer. It was able to calculate the positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets, including the variabilities in their orbits due to eccentricity, even though the ancients ultimately had an incorrect view of the cosmos. All through a complex of simple machines, especially gears with a prime number of teeth. You can watch the program here on PBS’ website, but it’s also on YouTube already (not sure for how long).
The device has also been reconstructed (though with some liberties due to manufactured parts limitations) out of Lego:
I had also talked about this object before in my ancient aliens talk, especially how we can understand how it fits into the history of science, and how it doesn’t really fit what you would expect from alien intervention. The same thing was brought up over at Ancient Aliens Debunked.
If you want to learn more about this incredible relic of ancient science and technology, you can check out the research team’s website, or you can read the excellent book by journalist Jo Marchant, Decoding the Heavens. If you want to see it in person, you will need to make a trip to Athens. I had done that years ago, and fortunately I knew about how amazing this object was when I went there in late 2005/early 2006. Strangely, I knew about it because of a good show on … The History Channel. And then that network went to hell…
[This originally appeared on Aaron’s excellent blog here, check it out].