A few sponge divers from the Aegean island of Symi discovered an ancient shipwreck more than a century ago by accident by a barren islet called Antikythera. A 10-month expedition sponsored by the Greek government brought back incredible treasures like bronze and marble statues, jewellery, glassware and furniture, including an ornate bronze throne. In all the excitement, nobody noticed a corroded lump of rock found along with these treasures. However, a few months later, it cracked open, revealing traces of gearwheels, precisely marked circular scales and inscriptions in ancient Greek. The battered artifact became known as the “Antikythera mechanism“, and it caused excitement and skepticism. Until then, not one gearwheel, pointer or scale had been found to show presence of technology in ancient times and some scholars did not rule out the possibility of a hoax.
The mechanism serves as a good example of how we humans chose to ignore or dismiss anything that we cannot understand or explain based on our current knowledge. The scholars at the time could not explain how such a complex, mechanised gadget could have been engineered about 2000 years ago and what purpose could it have served. Therefore, the Antikythera mechanism got slowly forgotten until recently, when a collaborative study (including X-raying) of the device was undertaken by a group of universities and companies. It turns out that it was a hand-wound clockwork device used to calculate the motions of the sun, moon and planets as seen from Earth, as well as to predict solar and lunar eclipses.
The New Scientist has published few informative articles about the mechanism and how it worked. There is also a video (featured above) made by them, and broadcast on YouTube, about the reconstruction of this device. Michael Wright, a former senior curator of the Science Museum in London, has studied the mechanism for decades and has recreated a working model of the ancient computer recently. He explains in the video how the device works with a simple rotation of a handle but also illustrates how complex the inner mechanism is! A must read and see for anyone who thinks that contemporary human beings are the smartest and technologically most advanced that the planet has ever seen.
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