Saturday, August 02, 2008

Antikythera Mechanism Decoded . . . partly

You may have read about the Antikythera Mechanism before. A corroded bunch of bronze and iron gears found in a shipwreck in 1901 by Greek sponge divers near the idyllic island town of Antikythera (presumably, humans diving for sponges, not sponges diving for fun. . . because, if it were sponges diving for fun they would have kept the Antikythera for themselves, right?) Anyway, where was I?

Oh, yeah. This thingy was found in a shipwreck over a hundred years ago. What is it? Good question. It' was built in the first century B.C. and looks kinda like a clockwork, only it predates clocks by many centuries. It has 29 surviving gears, according to this BBC story, and one of them contains the dates for the Olympics.

Amazing. Apparently, scientists subjected the thingy (they call it the Antikythera Mechanism, since Mechanism sounds more impressive than Thingy) to tomography. A 3-d image was produced, and:

"The four sectors of the dial are inscribed with a year number and two
Panhellenic Games: the "crown" games of Isthmia, Olympia, Nemea and Pythia; and
two lesser games: Naa (held at Dodona) and a second game which has not yet been

The ancient Olympics were not just every 4 years like now; they were actually four sets of games held over four years.

What I remember reading about the Antikythera is that--although this particular thingy was made long after the death of Archimedes in 212 (in Corinth), historians speculate that it was based on a prototype or design of the great scientist/tinkerer.

Wikipedia's Antikythera Mechanism page is quite up to date on this new research, as well as previous discoveries about the thingy, and has tons of references and links to articles in scientific journals like Nature. The "Antikythera Mechanism Project" maintains an accessible website, though it is being redesigned. It has links to a lot of the scans and digital radiographs of the 82 fragments of said thingy, as well as to much of the scientific data compiled. The pictures here are from their Image Gallery.

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