The Antikythera Mechanism is Amazingly Mystifying

Posted: September 21, 2016 in Inventions, Mystery, The Unknown, WTF?

Ever heard of the Antikythera Mechanism? No? Prepare to be amazed.antikythera-mechanism

Noted physicist Richard Feynman wrote in 1976 that the Antikythera Mechanism was “so entirely different and strange that it is nearly impossible to describe. It is some kind of machine with gear trains, very much like the inside of a modern wind-up alarm clock.

The Antikythera Mechanism was found on a sunken ship in the Aegean Sea between mainland Greece and Crete. The ship was assumed to be Roman and, when it sank just off the coast of the island in the middle of the 1st century BC, it carried a large number of artifacts dating back to as early as the 4th century BC.

In 1900, Greek sponge divers found the shipwreck, which was submerged in nearly 150 feet of water.

The bronze-and-wood object, later named Antikythera Mechanism, was found with a shipload of marble, coins, glassware, and pottery. Since all the other artifacts were more apparently worthy of conservation, the mechanism was largely ignored until 1951. After  two decades of study, the first publication on the Antikythera Mechanism was made in 1974 by physicist and historian Derek de Solla Price. Price’s work was unfinished when he died in 1983, having never figured out how the device actually worked.

However, scientists are pretty sure about this – the Antikythera Mechanism was designed to calculate dates and predict astronomical phenomena, so it was theoretically the earliest analog computer. Remember that it was made sometime in 4-million BC.

Here is the incredible description of the Antikythera Mechanism:

Reproduction of the original.

Reproduction of the original.

Consisting of at least 30 bronze gears in a wooden container that was only the size of a shoebox, the highly advanced clockwork mechanism was thousands of years ahead of its time. By turning a hand-crank, the user could move forward or backward in time. The crank made the gears move and rotate a series of dials and rings on which there are inscriptions and annotations of Greek zodiac signs and Egyptian calendar days. The mechanism tracked the lunar calendar, predicted eclipses, and charted the position and phase of the Moon. It also tracked the seasons and ancient festivals like the Olympics. The calendar is based on the time from one full moon to the next, and a special dial allowed the user to also envision the seasons, which would have been useful for agriculture. Since the ancient Babylonians figured out the cycle of eclipses, the inventor of the Antikythera Mechanism included two dials that rotate to show both lunar and solar eclipses. But the most sophisticated thing the mechanism did was lunar calculations—it could figure out the Moon’s period at a given time and model its elliptical orbit.

Bottom line, whoever built this contraption was a freaking genius.

The amazing thing is, it seems that the knowledge to build such a mechanism was lost through time, perhaps because it was a specialty device or too expensive to create. Similar astronomical clocks didn’t reappear in Europe until the 14th century.

And oh, one more thing – planetary motion in the mechanism was accurate to within 1 degree in 500-years.


And while many (but not all) of its functions have been figured out, how and where it was used are still unknown. ‘Tis a mystery for the ages. Somebody, though, was way ahead of their time. Way, way ahead.


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