The astounding achievements of our forefathers, particularly those of Classical Greece, and the Golden Age of the Romans and the Islamic world which followed and endured for more than a millennia after, are truly humbling.
Still, we read the works of Cicero and Socrates and still we learn from the great philosophers and thinkers of the ancient world and still we give thanks to the ancient Greeks for developing and implementing the political system of democracy which large tracts of the modern world now employ.
Recent scientific investigation into the fragments of an enigmatic object found along with a trove of other Classical Greek treasures, recovered from a Roman shipwreck just off the coast of the Greek Island of Antikythera in the Aegean, have revealed that the achievements of the ancient world are even more remarkable than originally thought.
The discovery of the first fragments of in 1900-01, a purely accidental discovery by sponge divers who happened on what at first appeared to be an unusual looking green rock, has since shown that the brilliance of our Greek ancestors was not merely limited to politics, mathematics and critical thinking, but also extended also to the design and manufacture of staggeringly intricate machines so complex that nothing of their equal are yet thought to have been built for well over 1,000-years after.
After spending more than 2,000 years at the bottom of the Aegean’s shallow waters, the three misshapen fragments of what has been dubbed the Antikythera Mechanism, in their rich hues of emerald and dark greens, are eye-catching, if unremarkable. The sight up-close of the embedded gears and their perfectly cut interlocking teeth; the small but exquisite inscriptions and text which adorn them, and the ring which much like a school protractor is divided into degrees, however, reveals that we are in the presence of something extraordinary.
The Antikythera Mechanism was once a sophisticated machine, this much is clear, but what was its actual purpose? Until recently, this would have been a difficult question to answer. Archeologists, researchers and Classical Greek experts could make head nor tails of it, and for many decades after its discovery marvelled at it but made no sense of it.
Initially, it was presumed that the Antikythera Mechanism was an ancient clock or orrery or astrolabe, but as it so happens those clever Greeks in-fact built something much more. Through the application of X-ray imaging in the 1970’s and increasingly advanced imaging scanning technologies in recent years, however, it has finally been revealed how the device was an astronomical instrument used to track the cycles of the solar system and the movements of the sun, moon, and the then-visible. With absolute precision, it should be added.
Much like your typical mantel place clock in size and with a circular front face with rotating hands, the design would have been somewhat modern in appearance. However the trains of interlocking gearwheels concealed within the case, the complexity of which amaze and at times baffle the world’s greatest watchmakers of today, drove the movement of at least seven hands rather than just two: one hand for the sun, for the moon, and each of the then-known planets visible to the naked eye – Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn.
No maker’s mark has been discovered on any of the recovered fragments, meaning that the creator of this machine will forever remain unknown, but sometimes a little mystery is no bad thing. What we do know beyond all doubt, in light of this discovery, is that the Antikythera Mechanism is living proof that when our species truly reaches its potential, the results can be truly incredible.