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The ancient Antikythera mechanism

The ancient Antikythera mechanism

In 1901 divers working around the island of Antikythera found clockwork- like remnants with an age of about 2000 years. The mechanism appears to be a device for calculating the movements of stars and planets. This mechanism, known as the Antikythera mechanism is now stored among the treasures of the Greek National Archaeological Museum in Athens, where the remains of some of the most complex scientific objects have been preserved from antiquity.

As scientists studied it thoroughly, they found vital clues to the true origin of this highly scientific technology which even now seems characteristic of our modern civilization, separate from all cultures of the past.

Fragments of evidence provide clear idea of the appearance of the original object. It consists of a box with dials on the outside and a very complex assembly of gear wheels mounted within, something that looks like a well- made clock from the 18th century.

Nothing that can be compared with this mechanism has been known, judging by ancient scientific texts and literary allusions. On the contrary, all that is known of science and technology in the Hellenistic period suggests that such a device could not exist. Some historians suggest that the Greeks were not interested in the experiment because they viewed manual labor with the contempt reserved for slaves.

Can we really be sure that the device is really ancient? If so, what was its purpose? What can it say about the ancient world and the evolution of modern science?

Once fragments had been found, they were examined by all scholars and archaeologists, thus beginning a long and difficult process of identifying the mechanism and determining its function. Some things were clear from the outset. The unique significance of the site was evident. From the inscriptions and settings of the mechanism, it was identified as an astronomical device. The first assumption is that it was some kind of navigation tool.

After numerous studies and comparisons, it was concluded that the Antikythera mechanism has to do with Islamic astronomical computers. They have been preserved in the Museum of History and Science in Oxford, since the 13th century. The Islamic calendar computer has various periods built into it, so as to show various cycles of the sun and moon. Such tools are much simpler than the Antikythera mechanism, but they have so many common points in their technical details, that they simply must come from a common tradition.