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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Ancient Astronomical Calculator Spurs More Questions

November 30th, I posted on the Antikythera Mechanism - 2000 year old Astronomical Clock. While looking through my local paper today (The Oregonian) I came across a very short blurb about this fascinating instrument. It sparked my imagination even more than the first posting did.

First, in 1900, a boat of sponge divers were forced to lay anchor off the small Greek island called Antikythera. It was a fluke, but while there, why not dive? This twist of fate caused Elias Stadiatos to discover the wreck of a cargo ship. When he came to the surface, he spoke of what struck him most. The wonderful statues of naked women. At that time, no one knew what a treasure had really been uncovered.

The Antikythera Mechanism, at it is now so unromantically called, was cased in wood. Archaeologists helped with the underwater dig at 200 feet down, but the effort had to be abandoned in 1901 due to the difficulties of a dive that deep without the equipment we have available today. As the wood casing dried out, it fell away, and revealed the gears of the clock. The Economist published an article September 19th, 2002 touting this ancient treasure as the forerunner to actual clock making techniques. That's an easy enough tie in to make when you consider this artifact is the first known example of the use of complex gears.

However, if you dig deeper, the truth is even more overwhelming. It showed an incredibly exact model of the movements of Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, as well as lunar and solar events. It took half a century for enough of the mechanisms details to be revealed to really have a concept of what it was truly made for. Before that time, everything was guesswork, from toy, to orrery, to planetarium, to a navigation device.

The largest revealed inscription in 1955 was very similar to an astronomical calendar written by Gerinos of Rhodes around 77 BC. Transcribing and identifying the inscriptions was such a slow process due to the high levels of calcification. Over the next century, pieces of the puzzle became much clearer.

The gears were first thought to be distorted, damaged or squashed. However, later, it was found that nearly every piece of the artifact was in the correct and original placement. The gears are impressively complex. Each was cut with the same angle (60 degrees) and size of teeth, so that any gear could fit with another gear. There is evidence that the pieces of the device were cut from a sheet metal plate of bronze. No other metal was used and all pieces are the same thickness. Even signs of at least two repairs became obvious with time. First, the spoke of the drive wheel had been repaired. Second, one tooth of a gear had been replaced. This shows that the device was used, in use and valuable enough to fix.

I don't know if I should be more amazed that our ancient brethren had the knowledge, patience and workmanship to create such a wonderful astronomical time piece, or that it has taken us, in all of our modern arrogance, a little over a century to understand it enough to replicate it.


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