The Antikythera Device

This has been played out, I know, but the antikythera device is awesome for many reasons. A lot of people say that this thing is important because it changes our understanding of what these people were capable of, technologically. I agree with this somewhat. It is a very complicated device, no doubt, but the fact is that the Greeks built all sorts of complicated machines (if you have the time, read about everything that Archimedes came up with. I will for sure do a post on this. Maybe even a series). Don’t get me wrong, it is truly a marvel of technology; however, what is interesting to me is the story behind it, and the window it gives us into the world in 100 BC.

The Antikythera Device was discovered in 1901 off of the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera by some sponge divers off of a ship that was waiting off a storm. Among the statues they pulled a rusting hunk of metal .

The Antikythera Device

The Antikythera Device, in its present state at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Honestly take a look at it. The fact is that this piece could easily have been left on the seabed, especially if you consider that it was probably covered with all sorts of maritime detritus.

The next 50 years was spent cleaning it. Historians figured that this was some sort of timekeeping mechanism.  However because of the years it spent on the sea floor, we could literally only take the device at surface value. It wasn’t until 1971 that someone had the genius idea of pointing an X-ray beam at it, so that we could see exactly what it was made of. 3 years later someone managed to build a preliminary working model of it. It keeps going from there.

In 2006 we took another, deeper, more detailed look at the device, and found that it is even more complicated than we thought. In fact, it is so subtle that it accurately portrays the motion of the moon in a way that conforms to Kepler’s law, meaning that it moves faster and slower at different times in its orbit. This mechanism is truly a game changer.

But why? Consider this statue that was found along with the device. Look at its detail. This is craftsmanship of the highest degree, and it predates the device by 200 years. Odds are, if you are reading this blog, that your government was founded under the ideals of the same people constructed this device, again predating this mechanism by 400 years. Why is it, then, that this device is such a surprise to us?

Consider what this device was built for. As the experts would have it, this is a piece of the highest technology at the time. If you had access to all kinds of technology what would you do? Well as the past generation of 12 year old boys and men in suits have taught us, generally it is about blowing stuff up. To be fair, Archimedes did spend the better part of his professional career building huge machines that would kill people and sink boats. However, this device is something else. It shows that they wanted to know more about their universe. Some evidence points to the fact that it may have been used to time the original Olympics. Who knows. I am sure that every generation will discover something new and exciting about this thing.

Why did I choose this for my first post, though? I’m glad you asked. Its a damned good story. That’s what I am hoping to accomplish with this blog, is tell ridiculous stories from history. It also shows that we do not give our ancestors enough credit. For all intents and purposes, the people that invented this were the same as you and me. They were just as clever, had the same motivations, were a little bit shorter, and were probably in way better shape than we are. Yet we’re constantly amazed that they can make awesome things. The fact is, is that this mechanism exists, and it is more than likely that there are others, and many other things of its ilk.

A major factor in this story is that a great amount of chance led to this being discovered. It was found 60 meters underwater. That’s 180 feet. Not only that, the only reason these guys were diving was because they were chilling out waiting for a storm to pass. My point is that crazy stuff happens. We can never rule out the power of chance. Also that the study of history is always evolving. We didn’t have the technology in 1974 to understand the machine. Anyways, I really hope I don’t give up on this blog, because there is awesome stuff out there.

Published in: on July 8, 2009 at 2:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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