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Antikythera Mechanism


 
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Antikythera Mechanism


There is at least one artifact that proves beyond all doubt that one civili-
zation in the ancient world possessed technical knowhow which no modern sci-
entist had previously suspected. Since it was found in the sea off Antiky-
thera, a small island northwest of Crete, it is known as the Antikythera
Mechanism.
  It was recovered from a shipwreck discovered in 1900 by a team of divers
who had decided to try to find sponges on a rocky ledge off Antikythera. They
came across the hull of a ship laden with statues. Later that year, they
returned to the scene, and, after many months of arduous and dangerous di-
ving, brought up a haul of bronze and marble statues which were taken to the
National Archaeological Museum in Athens for cleaning and restoration. The
museum staff were overwhelmed by the beauty and sheer quantity of the finds
and is is not, therefore, surprising that it was several months before anyone
looked closely at a few pieces of corroded bronze which had been recovered
with them. When, on 17 May 1902, a leading archaeologist, Spyridon Stais, fi-
nally examined them, he noticed the outlines of cogwheels in the ragged
bronze lumps. Immediately there was controversy: some experts said they were
the gear wheels of an astrolabe which astronomers had used for measuring the
elevation of heavenly bodies; others disputed the claim. What was certain was
that writing on the case indicated that the mechanism had been made in about
80BC. It was not, however, until 1958 that the Antikythera Mechanism was
first examined by the man who was to reveal the true extent of its maker's
technical achievement to the world.
  Derek de Solla Price, an Englishman who is now the Avalon Professor of the
History of Science at Yale University in America, came across the mechanism
while studying the history of scientific instruments. When he visited the
Athens museum, he was astonished by what he saw: 'Nothing like this instru-
ment is preserved elsewhere,' he wrote. 'Nothing comparable to it is known
from any ancient scientific text or literary allusion. On the contrary, from
all that we know of science and technology in the Hellenistic Age we should
have felt that such a device could not exist.'
   (part 1 of 2)--Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, by Simon Welfare &
    John Fairley, A & W Publishers (1980) New York pp.64-67.



Antikythera Mechanism part 2 of 2


  Preliminary work on the bronze fragments had revealed its basic features:
on the outside, it had consisted of dials set into a wooden box, and inside
there were at least twenty gear wheels. The box was covered with inscriptions
which included an astronomical calendar. But the most significant feature of
all was that the mechanism included a system of differential gears. It was
this that astonished Price, because, up to then, science historians had
thought such complex gearing had first appeared in a clock made in 1575.
  For more than a decade, Price struggled to reconstruct the mechanism from
the corroded fragments, but it was not until 1971 that X-ray photographs ta-
ken for Price by the Greek Atomic Energy Commission finally revealed the An-
tikythera Mechanism's full array of meshing gears. Since clocks dating from
the thirteenth century AD were known to have simpler gearing, Price's reac-
tion is understandable: 'I must confess that many times in the course of
these investigations I have awakened in the night and wondered whether there
was some way round the evidence of the texts, the epigraphy, the style of the
astronomical context, all of which point very firmly to the first centuryBC.'
  No one can be sure how the Antikythera Mechanism was used or what it was
doing in a ship laden with statues, but Price himself thinks that it may have
been a representation of the universe, more a work of art than a scientific
instrument. He also believes that it may have been part of a tradition of
gearing technology bequeathed by the Ancient Greeks to their Islamic succes-
sors, coming finally to fruition in the great European astronomical clocks of
the Middle Ages. Certainly, the Antikythera Mechanism must rank, as Price
claims, 'as one of the greatest basic mechanical inventions of all time.'
  Its very existence is a warning against the arrogant modern notion that so-
phisticated science was beyond the capabilities and the imagination of the
people of the ancient world.
   (part 2 of 2) --Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, by Simon Welfare &
    John Fairley, A & W Publishers (1980) New York pp.64-67.

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