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Imagine discovering a hidden room in a European medieval castle. As you open the room, you find an iPhone sitting on the table–invented in 1000 A.D. This analogy describes the discovery of the Antikythera Mechanism in 1900 A.D. This technologically baffling device is believed to have been created around 60-80 B.C., shortly before it was sunken in a Roman shipwreck off of the island of Antykythera near Greece. Though the device was badly corroded and many parts completely deteriorated over the 2000 years it was submerged in the sea, its secrets have recently been unlocked by researchers using X-ray and Gamma ray analysis.
The Antikythera Mechanism (as it has been titled) is believed to be the first computer ever invented since it is the oldest complex calculator created in ancient times. This device is an astronomical calculator that accurately tracks the movements of the sun and moon and predicts eclipses, lunar cycles and seasons. It is important to understand that this device was amazingly advanced for its time. It was so advanced that no other device with similarities in mathematics and engineering was invented for over another 1000 years when a much simpler and much larger eight-geared lunar/solar calculator was built into an astrolabe by Al-Biruni. (The pager compared to the iPhone.)
The device is the size of a shoebox (32 L x 16 W x 10 D) in centimeters. It was originally comprised of over 32 bronze gears (exact number unknown) housed in a wooden box with faceplates that showed the current state of the astronomical bodies it tracked. The device’s gears contained complex 3-dimensional gear trains. (Not just gears, but gear trains that moved in 3-dimensions with an accuracy of fine timepieces engineered today.)
The mathematics involved in the gear arrangements and the detailed engineering and manufacturing of the parts was far beyond the capabilities of the Greeks of the first century B.C. Experts are baffled to explain how perfectly every one of the teeth of the gears (thousands of gear teeth) are so perfectly shaped and spaced. It is literally impossible for such detailed manufacturing to be achieved by hand. If a contemporary metal shop were commissioned to build this device today, the craftsmen would have to use a computer to draw the forms, and a precision CNC cutter to machine the parts from bronze. How then could the Greeks of the first century achieve this amazing feat when they were still using crude iron and bronze tools? CNC routing wasn’t developed unitl the early 1900’s. A.D. The minute intricacies of the gear systems in the Antikythera Mechansim are like that of a fine Swiss watch–far beyond the capabilities of the ancient Greeks. Some critics cite large-scale Greek gear systems used in Greek architecture of this time as proof the Greeks possessed this engineering ability. However, that would be like comparing an abacus to the iPhone.
The Antikythera Mechansim’s function was revealed in the early 21st century. It is believed the device’s owner would turn dials on the device (or wind a spring-loaded system like a clock) and then read the faceplates to determine the lunar months and synodic months (the period between new moons) and know when solar and lunar eclipses would occur for decades to come. Imagine, having the ability to predict solar and lunar events during a time when the heavens were regarded as the birthplace of the gods. An enterprising being that possessed this device could feign control over the heavens and literally be a god on Earth.
While many experts try to offer explanations for how this device could have been conceived, designed and built, all their concepts fail the tests of logic. There is only one possible explanation. Beings with advanced knowledge of astronomical bodies, mathematics and precision engineering tools created the device or gave the knowledge for its creation to someone during the first century B.C. But the knowledge was not recorded or wasn’t passed down to anyone else.
Above: Original corroded remains of the Antikythera Mechansim currently on display at the National Archeological Museum in Athens, Greece. Even after more than 2000 years since its creation, this complicated device looks to be more like a fine Swiss watch than the invention of first century Greeks.
Above: Contemporary 3D computer generated model of the complex gear system witin the Antikythera Mechanism.
Below: Diagram of the advanced gearing system
Above: Artist’s conception of the device in its original state. The front side displayed instructions for use. The primary hand spun to show day and night as it moved around the celestial clock positions.
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Timeline of Mathematical Achievements
Leading Up To Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion (Required for the gearing math found in the Antikythera Mechanism.)
Arithmetic – Counting abstract objectsThe invention of arithmetic provides a way to abstractly compute numbers of objects.
Cuneiform – Written Language. A central event in the emergence of civilization, written language provides a systematic way to record and transmit knowledge.
Sumerian Calendar – Organizing timeThe first known calendar system is established, rounding the lunar month to 30 days to create a 360-day year.
Babylonian Mathematical Tables – Babylonians make tables of multiplication, reciprocals, squares, cubes, and square and cube roots.
Babylonian Astronomy – Using arithmetic to predict the heavens. The Babylonians introduce mathematical calculation as a way to track the behavior of planets and a few other systems in nature.
Pythagoras – Numbers are the key to natureThe Pythagoreans promote the idea that numbers can be used to systematically understand and compute aspects of nature, music, and the world.
Euclid – Organizing mathematical truthEuclid writes his Elements, systematically presenting theorems of geometry and arithmetic.
Antikythera Mechanism – A machine for computing. A gear-based device that survives today is created to compute calendrical computation.
Ptolemy – Formulas for the heavens. Ptolemy’s Almagest introduces epicycles to describe the detailed motion of planets.
The Moon’s movement isn’t constant. It speeds up and slows down. This is because its orbit isn’t exactly circular. Instead it’s slightly egg-shaped. The point furthest from the earth is the apogee and the point closest to the Earth is the perigee. When it’s near the apogee it travels slowly, but when it moves closer to the Earth it picks up speed until it passes perigee and then it slows down again. This is called the first lunar anomaly. The difference is noticeable by the naked eye, if you’re willing to make systematic observations. This is all simply explained by Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion. There’s a small problem. Kepler used ellipses. You can’t use elliptical gears. The point of gears is that they must have intermeshing teeth. An elliptical gear would lose contact with the driving gear as its axis changed. Instead it seems that the mechanism used two gears, one slightly off-axis from the other. The rotation was connected by a pin-and-slot arrangement, so that the one gear wouldn’t turn at quite the same rate as the other gear. The on-axis gear can then be turned reliably by the drive gears, while the motion of the moon can driven by the off-axis gear. So you have a device that can track the sidereal, synodic and anomalistic months, all while the Earth is spinning round the Sun. If that’s causing your head to spin you might want to skip the next paragraph.
There’s another problem. The lunar anomaly describes the Moon’s travel from one apogee to the next. This apogee is also rotating around the earth. If the apogee is in Aries then two and a bit years later it will be in Cancer, and another two and a bit years to move into Libra until it too has travelled through the zodiac over about nine years. So now we have a device which tracks the Moon around the Earth, and its phases and it’s variable speed and variations in that variability, while also keeping track of the Sun’s position, potential lunar and solar eclipses and intercalation cycles so you know when to stick an extra month in to keep the lunar months in step with the solar year round gears, some mounted slightly off axis to create a pseudo-sinusoidal variation using circular gears to replace ellipses. If you have funny feeling near the back of your head right now, that’s probably your brain trying to crawl out of your ears. The Antikythera Mechanism is insanely complex.
-Professor Michael Edmunds of Cardiff University
How Advanced Is This Device?
Leonardo Fibonacci – Fibonacci’s Liber Abaci introduces Hindu-Arabic numerals in Europe. Discover of Fibonacci sequence.
Franciscus Vieta – A notation for symbolic algebra. Franciscus Vieta writes mathematical formulas with letters as variables, using vowels for unknowns and consonants for parameters.
Johannes Kepler – 3 Laws of Planetary Motion. The complex mathematic formulas describe the eliptical orbits of the planets including accurate anomolies. (Required Math In the Antikythera Mechanism).
HUGE GAP OF TIME WITHOUT SIGNIFICANT ADVANCEMENTS:
1050 YEARS “THE DARK AGES”
Below: Cross section view of the gear system.
Note: Experts believe the other planetary gear wheels existed at one time but have not been recovered. (Not shown in this model)