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

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, …

  1. Chris G Silver badge

    Clickspring a YouTuber is building an Antikythera mechanism from scratch, amazing engineering and eell worth watching his series of videos.

    1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

      Youtube link

      He's also contributed some research of his own which is nice

      1. cawfee

        maybe one day he and This Old Tony can go back to locate an *original* Antikythera Mechanism

    2. Neil Barnes Silver badge
      Pint

      Exactly what I was about to post!

    3. Def Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Chris's other build series are well worth a watch too.

      1. WonkoTheSane

        He also has a second youtube channel - "Clickspring Clips", consisting of 1-3 minute videos of him using a specific technique or making a single item.

    4. Trigonoceps occipitalis Silver badge

      LEGO

      You could make a Lego mechanism.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpLcnAIpVRA

      1. Trigonoceps occipitalis Silver badge

        Re: LEGO

        Oops - wrong URL

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLPVCJjTNgk

    5. fidodogbreath Silver badge

      The final video of the series will show it running Doom...

  2. John Sager

    Boffinry at its best

    The paper is well worth reading, plus the supplementary info. The CGI videos in the latter are fascinating. It would take a talented clockmaker these days to build one, and the team propose to do just that using methods from those times. I will be very interested to see the result.

    1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge

      Re: Boffinry at its best

      They could raise funds for the build effort by selling NFTs for the CGI!

    2. WonkoTheSane
      Thumb Up

      Re: Boffinry at its best

      "It would take a talented clockmaker these days to build one, and the team propose to do just that using methods from those times. I will be very interested to see the result."

      As the post above mentions, see Clickspring on Youtube, he's already on it.

  3. xyz Silver badge

    iCog

    Apple probably will claim the patent

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: iCog

      It does have rounded bits on a portable computer.

    2. LDS Silver badge

      Re: iCog

      It was said Stivius Darius Xerjobes had it sunk for violation of patents. He attempted to patent the wheel, because it was round. but that was later rejected by the Roman Emperor, when in Uruk was found prior art.

  4. Maximus Delfango
    Thumb Up

    Hublot, a Swiss watch manufacturing purveying very expensive watches, made out of interesting materials, to very boastful people, had a go at this too:

    https://www.hublot.com/antikythera/

    https://www.ablogtowatch.com/hublot-antikythera-sunmoon-watch-hands/

    1. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

      I find most Hublots to be completely crass but this one is at least interesting. It looks like it replicates only a tiny proportion of the device's functions, though.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Coat

    But could it run Crysis?

    1. Gordon 10 Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Legend has it that it was broken after a particularly frantic session of Daley Thompsons Decathlon.

      (Thumbs up because its my only functioning finger)

    2. jake Silver badge

      No, but it could run in a crisis, when the mains power is down.

  6. Andy The Hat Silver badge

    For those who are interested in such mechanisms

    there's a book by Seb Falk called "The Light Ages" which is primarily built around the 1000AD onwards development of the "successors" to this device from the Armillary Sphere and its 2 dimensional form, the Astrolabe, to the Albion and Equatorie. Considering they were still using an Earth-centric model and epicycles, the accuracy was astounding.

    1. Mage Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: Considering they were still using an Earth-centric model

      Even if you suspected or proved a sun-centric solar system a clever box to show planets and moon as they are visible from earth or on a ship, would very likely put the Earth in the middle in an Earth-centric style. Star and planet computer simulators today start with an Earth based view.

      1. Andy The Hat Silver badge

        Re: Considering they were still using an Earth-centric model

        If you are only looking at the position of one or two objects that's fine and worked for location as they don't take into account true motion of objects. As soon as you turn this on its head and start using the machine to predict the full motions of the heavens including eclipses, retrograde motions, all the main stars and the positions of the entire zodiac from your location at any set time and date things become really difficult (hence the epicycles and epicycles of epicycles). One ring of the Equatorie required 365 location holes drilled but technology meant the builder only managed about 30 (if memory serves) as he could not physically drill smaller than a needle ... this is on a device that's planned to be the size of a cartwheel and accurate for 44,000 years.

    2. RLWatkins

      Re: For those who are interested in such mechanisms

      Piling on epicycles to duplicate complex curves is, mathematically, similar to using Fourier to fit a collection of sine curves to a function.

      I've seen epicycle demos which, with increasing accuracy, duplicated what looked like closed Hilburt curves. Didn't look like much until you got five or six epicycles, but with enough of them the results were pretty surprising.

      One shouldn't wonder that some ancient mathematically oriented tinkerer might stumble across the principle.

      1. RLWatkins

        Re: For those who are interested in such mechanisms

        Found some:

        https://brettcvz.github.io/epicycles/

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVuU2YCwHjw

  7. Roger Kynaston Silver badge
    Happy

    Hopefully Janina Ramirez will do something about it

    Another episode of Raiders of the Lost Past.

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Hopefully Janina Ramirez will do something about it

      I can imagine there being a fight over the rights for this. I can see a certain someone dressing up as one!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Hopefully Janina Ramirez will do something about it

      The BBC did a programme about it some years ago. Maybe this one:

      https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01hlkcq

      If it's the one I remember, it was fascinating. One key point was that none of the parts showed any evidence of re-working, to modify it or fix errors. So the mechanism wasn't a prototype, and all of the key elements of the mechanism (they emphasized the "pin-and-slot" drives used to reproduce the effects of elliptical motion) must have been well-known to the designers. Which further implies that somewhere there was a precision engineering workshop capable of making things like it to order.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Hopefully Janina Ramirez will do something about it

        Sorry - missed the editing window. The old BBC programme featured the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project of which Tony Freeth (first author of the paper) is/was a part. It also featured the parallel work of Michael Wright (formerly curator of Mechanical Engineering at the Science Museum), who had built his own reconstruction of the Mechanism.

      2. Toni the terrible
        Alien

        Re: Hopefully Janina Ramirez will do something about it

        It was the Ancient Alien Workshop I tell ee

    3. Potemkine! Silver badge

      Re: Hopefully Janina Ramirez will do something about it

      As long as it gives her an occasion tp stay longer than the mechanism in front of the camera, probably.

  8. Sceptic Tank Bronze badge
    Pirate

    Marooned

    Maybe if they looked for rocks in the sea instead of at the stars their ship would still be floating. Or maybe this was an early GPS device that did not work.

    1. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge

      Re: Marooned

      The thing about GPS is, it tells you where you are, Not what's happening around you.

      It's got something to do with translating a static 2D representation of an area at some historic point in time, into a real-time 3D model complete with dynamic environmental changes.

      The issue being something along the lines of 'a map cannot tell you the weather'.

      (yes we have weather maps, but those are not static, nor created by cartographers).

      1. Eclectic Man Silver badge
        Happy

        Re: Marooned

        There was a European captain of a sailing ship in the Pacific who lost his compass, and had to admit to his hired, Polynesian crew that he was lost and could not navigate them to the destination, or any other island. They asked him where they were going, he told them and the crew set off.

        A few days later they arrived precisely at the island destination. The European was amazed. "How did you know where it was?" The crew were confused "It's always been there."

        They knew how to navigate by the waves in the sea, the birds and clouds in the air, local currents and all manner of 'non technological' means. They still learn this today:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polynesian_navigation

        1. Jan 0 Silver badge

          Re: Marooned

          I don't doubt the navigation skills of Polynesian or any other non European intellectual tradition, but I do doubt this "Captain". He must have lost more than one compass: a whole chest of navigational equipment and tables and maybe his navigator too?

  9. 89724102172714182892114I7551670349743096734346773478647892349863592355648544996312855148587659264921 Bronze badge

    Anyone interested in watching amazing ancient devices being reconstructed should wander over to Clickspring:

    https://www.youtube.com/c/Clickspring/videos

  10. TeeCee Gold badge

    "...and the Olympiad cycle.”

    I still reckon the most convincing theory I've heard is that it's a sporting almanac.

    The ancients were not aliens and to this day, if you want to see really stupid amounts of money being chucked down the plughole by the wealthy, look no further than sports and the betting thereon.

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: "...and the Olympiad cycle.”

      Its the poor who are really stupid, throwing away what little money they have on sporting events ... and the wealthy encourage it, to help maintain the status quo.

      iam pridem, ex quo suffragia nulli uendimus, effudit curas; nam qui dabat olim imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat, panem et circenses.

  11. jgarbo

    So, not Greek. Didn't have lathes for the five concentric spindles. Persian < Indian? They didn't invent zero but they knew how to use it. Smart folks.

    1. ThatOne Silver badge

      I wondered too when I read the article, thinking at first "Greek" referred to the mechanism's origin (and they had found a sticker "Made in Taiwan" on the back). But after reading I realized it must be a misleading attempt at a pun ("Greek" as in "incomprehensible").

      (Didn't downvote you though.)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      What does "Greek" mean?

      The construction dates mentioned are in the range of roughly 200-60BC, so are post-Alexander. This certainly allows for an origin outside modern Greece (and for Persian/Indian-origin skills to have been involved in manufacture). But it ignores the evidence that all the writing on it is in Greek, and one of the functions is to track the various Greek games. So it was made for (someone in) the Greek-speaking-and-Greek-culture area of the eastern Mediterranean. In the absence of non-Greek items showing similar workmanship from the same time period, it's therefore logical to assume that the workshop was in the same area, even if it's not a certainty (and if other items do turn up, then the history books get re-written again).

      And I'm surprised to hear that Greeks didn't have lathes. They had potter's wheels. Musical pipes were commonplace too, implying woodworking lathes. (And that's just from my limited knowledge of the time - corrections welcome).

    3. Grikath

      ummm...

      You don't need a lathe to make the concentric shafts. There's several methods to do this, none requiring a lathe of any kind. Them greeks knew how to Bronze, y'know...

      Oh, and the ancient egyptians already had lathes, notably the bow-type and the spring type for wood and stone work. So I think the greeks of the 1st c. BC may just have had a clue about them after a couple of centuries of trade and war and stuff.

    4. Eclectic Man Silver badge

      Archimedes

      Archimedes was from Syracuse, a 'Greek' town on the island of Sicily. People and things are attributed as being 'Greek' due to the association with the Greek empire, irrespective of whether they were actually from the geographical location known as Greece.

  12. JacobZ
    Paris Hilton

    Where are the others?

    It seems enormously unlikely that something like this exists in isolation, if only because the skills and techniques had to be developed through simpler predecessors. Even Babbage's Difference Engine, huge advance that it was, did not appear out of thin air, and it had a number of successors.

    Were they just very few of these? Were they not preserved well?

    Or are there other examples that have just been missed, mistaken for lumps of mud and rock?

    1. -tim

      Re: Where are the others?

      Any earlier examples would have been turned into something else after they were no longer repairable. Anything broken thing made of metal would have found its way into the hands of a recycler if there was anyway to get it there. I think a survey of jewelry possibly made of gears would be an interesting thing to look at since there are mentions of other complex devices and turning a broken gear into a relatively shiny bit of ornamentation would have been an easy task.

      The study of Ancient Egypt mentions devices made of wood including devices used to lift large stones yet no examples have been found but in a place where firewood was hard to get, any broken wooden device would be building material or firewood very quickly.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Where are the others?

        It's also worth pointing out that anything made of bronze at that time was literally made of money - small value coins were often bronze. In a society where metal was expensive, anything broken or stolen was likely to have been melted down pretty quickly.

        1. Eclectic Man Silver badge

          Re: Where are the others?

          When the Romans sacked the greek town of Corinth, the place burnt with such ferocity that the fire melted not only the large amount of bronze, but also the gold and silver which ran in the gutters and mixed. Items made of 'Corinthian Bronze' were highly prized for their gold and silver content.

          Had the Corinthians owned an example of this mechanism, it would not have survived the fire.

    2. Steve K Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Where are the others?

      Due to an administrative oversight, the AntiKythera mechanism was being transported on the same ship as the Kythera mechanism.

      Dues to rough weather at sea, the 2 devices came within close proximity and the rest is history. Due to sea symmetry violation, only fragments of the AntiKythera mechanism survived.

      Or something

    3. ThatOne Silver badge

      Re: Where are the others?

      > Were they just very few of these?

      Definitely. It's a terribly complicated device, hand-made to order, and must have cost a fortune, so I guess there were never more than a dozen made, it at all. There is a distinct possibility it was an unique object built for somebody.

      If they knew how to do gears, why wouldn't there be a lot of simpler mechanisms like clocks and stuff? I think people at that time simply didn't realize the potential. After all they had also invented a kind of steam engine and didn't try to put it to any use either: Too soon, both were solutions to problems which hadn't yet cropped up (precise clocks were required for ocean navigation, steam for mines and large scale industry).

      Besides, even if there were more geared devices, they are quite fragile and this one only survived because it was dug in marine sediment and left alone for millennia. Those on dry land would suffer much more damage and their pieces would had been recycled, or at least dispersed and deformed beyond recognition in the following 20 centuries.

      1. Stoneshop Silver badge
        Boffin

        Re: Where are the others?

        After all they had also invented a kind of steam engine and didn't try to put it to any use either: Too soon, both were solutions to problems which hadn't yet cropped up (precise clocks were required for ocean navigation, steam for mines and large scale industry).

        ISTR there was a Greek temple that had a pair of doors opening by way of water being boiled in underfloor cylinders, and closing when it cooled again. Which was probably done for the magikxz, not because it somehow was easier. Might have been just a construction drawing though, by one of the contemporary επιστήμονες (boffins).

      2. 2+2=5 Silver badge

        Re: Where are the others?

        > If they knew how to do gears, why wouldn't there be a lot of simpler mechanisms like clocks and stuff?

        I wondered that and, notwithstanding the cost aspect of bronze being expensive, I suggest the answer is that they simply had no need of timekeeping. On land activities were driven by the seasons and daylight hours. Maritime activities (even assuming a spring drive could have been manufactured to make a portable clock) were limited to the Mediterranean, coastal Africa and coastal Europe: in other words not far enough away from land for long enough to need a longitude.

  13. StrangerHereMyself Bronze badge

    Not a computer

    Although the mechanism is intricate and ingenious, it's not a computer in the modern sense of the word. So please stop calling it that.

    Call it a mechanical calculator of some sort, but not a computer.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Not a computer

      Are you sure? The wikipedia article for "analog computer" specifically mentions it.

      1. StrangerHereMyself Bronze badge

        Re: Not a computer

        Wikipedia isn't the sage of all knowledge. A computer these days refers to a programmable machine, not a glorified calculator.

        Babbage's Analytical Machine can be referred to as a computer, but this thing is merely a calculator.

    2. Potemkine! Silver badge

      Re: Not a computer

      Doesn't it compute ? It may not be programmable, but seems to be a computer to me!

  14. Big_Boomer Silver badge
    Boffin

    PocketHenge? iHenge?

    Does the same thing, only portable <LOL>

    1. Eclectic Man Silver badge
      Headmaster

      Re: PocketHenge? iHenge?

      PEDANT ALERT

      A henge is a ditch surrounding a flat area of land.

      (Sorry)

      end\ PEDANT ALERT

  15. AndrueC Silver badge
    Joke

    Sunk under the ocean for 2,000 years? Some people will do anything to avoid Windows updates.

  16. muuser

    Analogue or digital

    The mechanism is being referred to as the first analogue computer in the main stream press. I would have thought a meshed gear device would be digital. Even an abacus is digital, in both senses, and Turing complete, and older than the Antikythera Mechanism. Mind you, what an astonishing bit of reverse engineering.

    1. ThatOne Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: Analogue or digital

      I'm digital too, my hands and feet are full of them...

  17. steelpillow Silver badge
    Boffin

    Prime science

    The Antikythera mechanism was indeed a computer, in the same sense that a mechanical "computing gunsight" of WWII was a computer: you adjusted the settings and it churned out the answer. It simulated the standard cosmological model of the day. Astronomers had tracked the major objects in the sky and tried to develop theories to explain their observations. They had no numerical notation, beyond borrowing letters of the alphabet, and found multiplication extremely hard without an abacus. Nevertheless prime numbers, and specifically ratios of prime numbers, were found to closely model the relationships between orbital periods and the like. As the theory advanced, higher primes and epicycles led to ever-more-accurate models. This highly scientific state-of-the-art cosmological model has become known as the Ptolemaic Universe and foolishly written off by unscientific chauvinists of the modern age.

    The Antikythera mechanism was the state-of-the-art supercomputer of its day and simulated the Universe to the limits of measurement accuracy. To advance their theory they didn't discover ever-higher-energy particles, just ever-larger prime numbers. One of these gears has 227 teeth, FFS! Imagine figuring out that is a prime using only Roman numerals and an abacus! Those Greeks were top-notch theoretical physicists. Archimedes is known to have had a similar example, which seems to have been lost on a sea voyage around the same time, and it is conceivable that this one was actually his.

    But the Greeks were not only as scientific but also as much woo merchants as our modern cosmologists are, despite plugging rather fewer arbitrary numbers into their model than we do. Prime numbers became sacrosanct and to suggest that numbers such as pi or root 2 might be irrational was heresy to many ears. Not, as so often claimed, because the Greeks were primitive, but for broadly the same reasons that the mainstream Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is paraphrased as "shut up and calculate"; in other words, "go hunt out new primes and don't come back until you have found one". Yet the woo did seep in; this priceless object was built for one purpose and one purpose only, to predict the most auspicious date for the next Olympic Games.

    1. yetanotheraoc

      Re: Prime science

      "Yet the woo did seep in; this priceless object was built for one purpose and one purpose only, to predict the most auspicious date for the next Olympic Games."

      So they invented the funding model as well.

    2. jake Silver badge

      Re: Prime science

      "One of these gears has 227 teeth, FFS! Imagine figuring out that is a prime using only Roman numerals and an abacus!"

      My Daughter figured that out in her head when she was about 7 years old. So did my grand daughter. I hardly think that the mathematicians of the Classical Era would have found it to be as difficult as you portray.

    3. 2+2=5 Silver badge

      Re: Prime science

      > One of these gears has 227 teeth, FFS! Imagine figuring out that is a prime using only Roman numerals and an abacus!

      Using only Roman numerals [1] would be a challenge but, fortunately, setting out a Sieve of Eratosthenes on a piece of land would only require 227 marks in the ground.

      [1] Roman numerals were used for recording amounts as they are easy to scratch or emboss. Actual calculations were done using something akin to an abacus.

    4. ThatOne Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: Prime science

      > this priceless object was built for one purpose and one purpose only, to predict the most auspicious date for the next Olympic Games.

      This priceless object had probably one purpose only, impress the Joneses.

      I mean scientists of that time would be satisfied with a sheet of papyrus detailing the data and formulas (and could most certainly not afford more), and the incredibly rich person who ordered that device to be made had most likely only a vague notion of what it was calculating. But it definitely looked great on his mantelpiece, and was a great conversation starter...

  18. Keith Oborn

    Must look at this

    I went to a talk organised by the Computer Conservation Society a few years back, and got a copy of "Decoding The Heavens". There was an excellent exploded view reconstruction by Michael Wright done as well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MqhuAnySPZ0

    What is interesting in the book also is the saga of multiple attempts to work out the structure over the decades, fallings out, refusing to hand materials over, and so on.

    I think Arthur Clarke observed: "This is at least as complex as a 16th century clock. If the Romans hadn't shut down the great Rhodes school and the rest of Greek theoretical science, the Greeks could have reached the moon by about 300AD"

    1. Stoneshop Silver badge
      Pirate

      Re: Must look at this

      the Greeks could have reached the moon by about 300AD

      Followed by the Vikings half a millennium later, if those had had reason to think there would have been stuff to plunder, rape and/or pillage there.

      1. jake Silver badge

        Re: Must look at this

        Contrary to popular belief (and really bad TV shows), the Vikings were mostly traders and explorers, not raiders.

        1. Stoneshop Silver badge

          Vikings

          Ah, and we're not to joke about that, else they will come and plunder, rape and/or pillage that naughty commentard.

        2. Grikath
          Pirate

          Re: Must look at this

          Well.. the monks that got plundered did write the commonly taught History, while at the same time a different branch tried to Convert the "damned heathens"...

          On the other hand, the Danes/Russ/Swedes/northern Slavs(!) didn't go in for Writing Complaints Down much. If it wasn't worth being sung by a Skald, or entrusted to Runes, it wasn't worth mentioning..

          So the primary sources we have just might be a tad biased, and not wholly represent the opinion of the Vikingr themselves.

          Icon because..

          Besides... Those complaining monks were officially Ascetics.. They didn't have any use for all that gold and posessions anyway. Hypocritical bastards..

  19. Alistair Dabbs Silver badge

    Been there - twice

    I've visited the museum twice to see the device remains and have several gigs of photos. Glad to see modern research continues apace, given that home-grown Greek historians sort of lost interest in it for a while.

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