July 19, 2017
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The Portable Cosmos

by Alexander Jones

A century ago, Greek sponge divers found an ancient wreck that held a cargo of statuary, luxury good, and the corroded, smashed remains of a bronze gizmo with lots gears off the coast of Antikythera. This contraption, known as the Antikythera Mechanism, has confounded historians of science ever since. Now, after lots of study and the advent of modern radiography, we know what it was.

The Antikythera Mechanism was a complex gearbox that demonstrated, with considerable accuracy, how the solar system works. It’s geocentric, and that makes things hard, but the ingenious inventors of this machine were up to the challenge. The machine’s instructions were engraved in brass on its covers, and much of those instructions survive. It had lots of dials and pointers, did a nice job of predicting eclipses, and even had a pointer to keep track of the Olympic Games.

This has been a proverbial mystery for ages. Now that we know what it is, we even have sources (including Cicero!) that describe similar machines. There can’t ever have been many of these, but it’s terrific that one survived.