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Author Topic: ANTIKYTHERA Mechanism  (Read 4457 times)
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« Reply #30 on: January 09, 2009, 08:47:46 am »

                    Decoding the Heavens: Solving the Mystery of the World’s First Computer

                     by Jo Marchant - review

        Ed Lake uncovers the story of the Antikythera mechanism, a 2,000-year old piece of clockwork

By Ed Lake
Last Updated: 11:21AM GMT 08 Jan 2009

Astonishing archaeological discoveries, those that send even the most staid archivist into reveries about ancient astronauts and time travellers, are disappointingly rare. There is an iron pillar in Delhi erected around 900 BC that has hardly rusted; the so-called “Baghdad battery” – a Sassanid pot that may or may not have been an electrochemical cell, though it hardly matters since it has nowhere to attach wires. But these are slim pickings.

The only item with a decent claim to have upset the established record is the Antikythera mechanism, a 2,000-year-old lump of corroded bronze that is the most exquisite piece of pre-18th-century clockwork that we possess. In 1901, a team of Greek sponge divers was investigating an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera.

Along with a haul of bronze statuary and some potsherds that proved useful for dating the vessel, it happened on a few chunks of encrusted greenish limestone from which, puzzlingly, gears were protruding. This should, so to speak, have set off alarm bells: up until then the entire tradition of European clockwork was thought to stem from 10th-century Arabia; the flowering of this art in the 15th century was what inspired the mechanistic ideas of Descartes and Laplace, which, in turn, laid the foundations for the technological triumphs of the following centuries. In other words, those few cogs should have caused a major upset in the history of thought.

Instead, the chunks were left for several years in a crate outside the Athens National Archaeological Museum. On contact with the air, hydrochloric acid started forming around the surviving fragments, eating away at their workings. By the time anyone got round to inspecting the device, it was very difficult to see what it could have been. The story of how it has been pieced back together over the past 50 years is the main theme of Jo Marchant’s diverting book.

Choosing to focus on this aspect of the subject might have been a mistake, however, as the tale pans out very much as you might guess. It all came down to improvements in 3D imaging technology – Cat scans, essentially – combined with the clock-building intuition of scholars. There aren’t many twists to lighten the exposition, though Marchant does set up a satisfyingly bitter race for the prize. Michael Wright, a British savant, wore out his health, marriage and job trying to reconstruct the device through his mechanical intelligence. When he found himself beaten by a documentary filmmaker who used flash-tomography equipment, he turned up at his rival’s party to deliver what a witness called: “half an hour of continuously controlled rage”. Having heard what he went through, I don’t blame him.

Yet despite such heightened passions, the participants in Marchant’s drama remain for the most part indistinct. We get very little quotation to suggest tone of voice, and character is largely sketched through cliché: “Field was a careful scholar, fiercely proud of her PhD”; “Agamemnon is… a large but gentle bear of a man” and so on. One gets an impression of anxious mollification, as if Marchant thought her interview subjects would revolt unless portrayed as heroes.

None of this detracts greatly from the main interest: the device. Marchant calls it a computer, which seems a stretch since it wasn’t in any sense programmable, but it’s a dizzyingly brilliant thing regardless. A mechanical calendar, it gave the positions of the stars, quite possibly predicted eclipses, and might, rather unconventionally for the time, have placed the sun instead of the Earth at the centre of the cosmos.

Michael Wright believes the device originally possessed 72 gears. Those that survive are so tiny and perfectly cut, not to mention arranged in so elegant a mechanism, as to suggest a mature tradition in clockwork that has not survived. Bronze was a scarce commodity, often recycled. Medieval scribes tended to copy only those treatises of the ancients which they could understand. In this way, pinnacles of human ingenuity recede. Whatever else it might once have told its creators, the Antikythera mechanism bears a chilling message for our technological age.
« Last Edit: July 13, 2009, 08:19:56 pm by Bianca » Report Spam   Logged

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