The mysterious mechanism was discovered in 1900 in the wreck of a Roman vessel off the Greek island of Antikythera. The ship held other treasures that were taken over by the Greek government, but one of the items retrieved by the divers was an odd-looking corroded lump of some kind. When the lump fell apart some time later, a damaged machine of unknown purpose was revealed. It bore large gears, small cogs and a few words engraved in Greek.
At first it was believed to be some kind of astronomical time-keeping device. One researcher in particular, Derek J. de Solla Price, established initial tooth counts and believed that the device followed what is known as the Metonic cycle, which in the ancient world was used to predict eclipses. The full function of this odd device remained a mystery until recently. Advances in photography and x-rays have revealed the true complexity of this astonishing creation that, anachronistically speaking, is akin to finding the remnants of a supersonic jet plane in the ruins of ancient Egypt.
Photography unlocked many of the mysteries of this device by exposing its surfaces to varying lighting patterns, which in turn created different levels of contrast. Researchers were then able to read more of the inscribed text than was previously possible. Details of the interactions of the gears were quite complex and clearly revealed through the marvels of x-ray imaging and the creation of 3-D computer models of the mechanism. The Greek National Archaeological Museum also found some boxes filled with 82 mechanism fragments.
The Antikythera mechanism was an ingenious tool comprised of an elaborate system of gears that could be used to predict the exact time of an eclipse and even made provisions for leap years. No ordinary calendar, it was also able to predict the positions of the sun and the moon and the astronomical positions of the planets as they were known to the ancient world. These included: Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. In addition, a small dial within the larger Metonic dial held the dates of important social events such as The Olympics. All of the different functions could be accomplished by turning a crank on its side.
The research concerning this astonishing device was published in Nature and despite all it reveals about ancient knowledge and capabilities, who built it remains a mystery. Although Cicero wrote of something like this and attributed it to the ancient inventor, Archimedes, this machine was built after Archimedes’ death. The engraved words link it to Corinth or its colonies. It is possible that since Sicily was a colony and the Sicilian city of Syracuse was Archimedes headquarters, that the mechanism may have been based on one of his designs and carried out by his disciples.
Still, one question lingers. If this device was industrialized, surely more than one would have been created. Why have no others been found?
It can only make one wonder about how many more incredible creations have been lost over the last 2,000 years and what we could have learned from them.