Boffins revisit the Antikythera Mechanism and assert it’s no longer Greek to them

New reconstruction based on more evidence finds ancient mechanical computer could track planets, moon, eclipses, even the seasons and stars


Academics from University College London and The Cyprus Institute assert that they’ve built the most accurate model of the Antikythera Mechanism, the one-of-a-kind ancient Greek machine made of meshed gears.

The Mechanism’s back story is worthy of myth: it was found in the year 1900, amidst a wreck thought to have gone down 2,000 years earlier. The Mechanism was initially thought to be just a lump of rock or wood. Later investigation yielded evidence of a geared wheel, an artefact of which very few survive from antiquity and mentioned only a few times in ancient literature. As technology improved and finer investigations of the artefact became possible, it was discovered to include meshed gears and to be capable of predicting the movement of planets and the sun.

In a new paper titled A Model of the Cosmos in the ancient Greek Antikythera Mechanism, the authors describe it as “a mechanical computer … that used ground-breaking technology to make astronomical predictions, by mechanizing astronomical cycles and theories.” They’re not alone in calling the device a computer: many consider it the world’s first such device.

But the paper asserts that previous analyses of the Mechanism’s functions did not attempt to reconstruct its functions with proper analysis of or deference to the many inscriptions it bears.

“No previous reconstruction has come close to matching the data,” they write.

Their model, they claim, “respects the inscriptional evidence” and has resulted in “a ring system with nine outputs—Moon, Nodes, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Date—carried by nested tubes with arms supporting the ring.”

The paper also details how authors considered known practices and theories ancient Greek and Babylonian astronomy, and how they would have influenced the design of a device designed to predict the movements of the spheres.

“Because of the loss of evidence, we cannot claim that our model is a replica of the original,” the authors write, “but our solution to this convoluted 3D puzzle draws powerful support from the logic of our model and its exact match to the surviving evidence.” They therefore offer the following analysis:

“It calculated the ecliptic longitudes of the Moon, Sun and planets; the phase of the Moon; the Age of the Moon; the synodic phases of the planets; the excluded days of the Metonic Calendar; eclipses — possibilities, times, characteristics, years and seasons; the heliacal risings and settings of prominent stars and constellation; and the Olympiad cycle.”

The authors offer detailed videos explaining their reasoning in the paper, and University College has also posted a documentary about the device and the new work reconstructing it. ®


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