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Guest Viewpoints

The Cosmos of the Immaculate Antikythera Mechanism

December 21, 2021
By Evaggelos Vallianatos

Prologue

The second century BC was a time of the golden age of Greek science and civilization centered in the successor kingdoms of the empire of Alexander the Great, especially in Alexandria, Egypt. However, mainland Greece was facing the aggressive Roman Republic. In 146 BC, a Roman army wiped out Corinth, Greece becoming a province of Rome.

The victorious Romans looted and ruled Greece. Sometime in the first century, a rich Roman citizen or a general filled a giant boat with stolen Greek treasures in Rhodes. The ship headed for Rome, but it sunk in the stormy waters of the tiny island of Antikythera south of Peloponnesos. Two thousand years later, in the Spring of 1900, Greek sponge divers discovered the sunken ship loaded with Greek treasures.

Among statues, ceramic vases, coins, and earnings, there was a metal artifact that the experts of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens did not know what to do with it. After they observed triangular teeth and Greek inscriptions on the artifact, they dubbed it Antikythera Mechanism. Greek and foreign scientists had great difficulty in deciphering the nature of the Antikythera device. They studied it for more than a century.

Bronze gears of the Antikythera Mechanism. Painting by the Greek artist Evi Sarantea. Courtesy Sarantea.

The reasons for these extensive studies are complex, though clear. Here was a 2,200-year-old astronomical computer that had no precedent in history. It was immaculate and built with toothed interlocking bronze gears, that is, scientific technology. The scientists were shocked to see precision gears with triangular one millimeter long teeth. This technology was supposedly a product of Modern times.

The 7 largest fragments of the Antikythera computer, seen from both sides. Most of the gears are within fragment A. Courtesy Tom Malzbender and Hewlett Packard

 Gears from the Greeks

One of the mid-twentieth century foreign experts that studied the Antikythera Mechanism in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens was Derek de Solla Price. For about 16 years, he studied the fragments of the Greek device and, in 1974, he published Gears from the Greeks.

  • Price’s report opened the way to a more accurate evaluation of the Antikythera computer, which he described as “the oldest existing relic of scientific technology, and the only complicated mechanical device we have from antiquity.”
  • Price complained that the West judges the Greeks from scraps of building stones, statues, coins, ceramics, and a few selected written sources. Yet, when it comes to the heart of their lives and culture, how they did their work in agriculture, how they built the perfect Parthenon, what kind of mechanical devices they had for doing things in peace and war, how they used metals, and, in general, what they did in several fields of technology, we have practically nothing from the Greek past.

Price died in 1983 and his legitimate question remains largely unanswered. In most cases, classical scholars ignore Hellenic science and technology.

A stunning instrument of Heavens and Earth

In 2005, a few international scientists used two high tech companies, X-Tek from England, and Hewlett Packard from the United States, to reveal the  secrets of the astronomical device.

They concluded that the Antikythera Mechanism was the most sophisticated technology in the Mediterranean for more than a millennium.

Painting of the Antikythera computer by Dionysios Kriaris.

A Calculator and a Calendar

The Antikythera computer was a practical machine. It read the stars, as well as being a calendar that connected the Panhellenic games like the Olympics to the phenomena in the natural world and the Cosmos. Besides, the accurate calendar helped the Greeks to worship the gods at the same time each year.

A Mechanical Universe

Front view of the Antikythera Mechanism, the Cosmos. Painting by Evi Sarantea.
  • Two circles enclosed the Cosmos. The outside circle represented the 365-day year. The inside circle was the Zodiac, an imaginary cosmic circle of 12 constellations around the Earth. The front view also depicted the movement and position of the Sun, Moon, the phases of the Moon, planets, and prominent stars and constellations. The front inscriptions explained which constellations rose and set at any specific time.
  • Two spirals make up the back plate. The upper one represents the Metonic 19-year 235-month calendar. Within this spiral there’s the connection with the Olympics. The lower spiral is the 18-year 223-month solar and lunar eclipse prediction Saros calendar.
Back view of the Antikythera computer. Painting by Evi Sarantea.

Archimedes and Hipparchos

The ideas of Archimedes and Hipparchos gave substance to the Antikythera astronomical computer. Archimedes, a mathematical and engineering genius of the third century BC, was the father of mathematical physics and mechanics that made the Antikythera computer possible. Archimedes measured curved surfaces and applied mathematics for the study and understanding of nature. He was also an astronomer who studied and measured the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon. Those measurements were important to the designers of the Antikythera machine. Archimedes, like the Antikythera Mechanism, deciphered the book of the Cosmos. He became the model for Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton.

Archimedes measuring water buoyancy and inventing a fundamental law of physics. Greek postage stamp of 80 drachmas, 1983.

Like Archimedes, Hipparchos, the greatest Greek astronomer, made the Antikythera computer possible. From about 140 to 120 BC he had his laboratory in Rhodes. More than other Greek astronomers, he made use of the data of Babylonian astronomers. But like the rest of the Greek astronomers, he employed geometry in the study and understanding of astronomical phenomena. He invented plane trigonometry and made astronomy the predictive mathematical science it is today.

Quadrant (Plinthis) of Hipparchos was used for solar studies, especially those determining the length of the year. Courtesy Dionysios Kriaris.

A Computer of Heavens and Civilization

  • Archimedes and Hipparchos provided the architecture of science and technology of the immaculate astronomical machine. However, they, too, stood on the shoulders of giants like Aristotle who invented biology, and tutored Alexander the Great, general Ptolemaios, and others who contributed to science and technology. Alexander conquered Persia and spread Hellenic culture all over the world.
Starting from the left: Archimedes (bending over), Alexander the Great, Demetrios Phalereus (worked in the establishment of the Library of Alexandria), Aristotle, Theophrastos (student of Aristotle, inventor of botany, and first director of Aristotle’s school), and Straton (student of Aristotle and second director of Aristotle’s school). Mural at the entrance to the University of Athens. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos
  • Alexander made possible Alexandria, Egypt, which, under the leadership of his general, Ptolemaios, became the preeminent Greek polis of science and civilization in the ancient world. Its Mouseion-University and great Library were the equivalent in books, knowledge, and brain power of the Library of Congress, MIT, Harvard, and Oxford universities. These Alexandrian institutions gave birth to the science and civilization of the beautiful Antikythera computer of genius, which, eventually, became the pillar of our civilization.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, PhD, historian, and environmental theorist, is author of hundreds of articles and 7 books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer (Universal Publishers, 2021).

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