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A Guide to the Mysterious Antikythera Mechanism

 More than a century ago, a ship was traveling through heavy seas off the coast of the Aegean island of Antikythera. It was carrying sponge divers, and it had to take refuge in the island’s harbor. When the sea became calmer, the sponge divers dove off the coast and happened upon a 2,000-year-old shipwreck that is believed to be Greek.

 

In addition to the jewelry, coins, pottery, and statues made of bronze, they also found an artifact that would change the entire perspective of history in the Mediterranean Basin. It consists of 82 pieces of corroded bronze, but was deemed too delicate to study until the early 1950s.   

Derek J. de Solla Price, a physicist, and professor at Yale University, was the one to turn his attention to it during that time. He employed the most advanced technology available to him, the X-ray machine, to attempt to discover its origin and purpose, but it still wasn’t able to give him any definitive answers.

It would be almost another quarter of a century before any more information on the Antikythera Mechanism would come to light. Price studied it once again, this time in conjunction with a Greek nuclear physicist named Charalampos Karakalos. They performed X-ray and Gamma-ray tests on the mechanism in 1974, and published a paper that listed the mechanism’s gear settings and inscriptions.

The Antikythera Mechanism is believed to have been manufactured in around 87 BC. This date correlates with the dates of the coins found onboard the shipwreck, which are likely to have come from the ancient Greek city of Pergamon. Although it was first thought to be an astronomical clock, the mechanism is actually far too sophisticated when compared to other astronomical clocks of the time.

The mechanism’s pieces are made from a low-tin bronze alloy, and the inscriptions are written in Koine Greek, making it safe to assume that it was manufactured in Greece. Another mystery is why the mechanism was on a cargo ship in the first place, but the most pervasive theory hypothesizes that it was booty taken by the Romans from the Greek islands.

Back in 2005, the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project commenced. It’s an international association of researchers backed by the National Archaeological Museum and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture in Athens, where the mechanism now resides.

Assistance in the field of advanced digital imaging is also being provided by Hewlett Packard and X-Tek Systems. Some of the technology that has been employed to uncover the Antikythera Mechanism’s mysteries includes a microscopic X-ray device that allowed researchers to make out the minute details of the writing and gears.

 

The mechanism has been named the world’s first computer, because researchers determined that it was created to study astronomical phenomena using a mechanical, computer-like system that shows the cycles of the solar system. Its design incorporates the standard theories of astronomy and mathematics that were prevalent at the time of its creation.

Many professors have expressed their sentiments on just how extraordinary it is due to its uniqueness and precise astronomy. There are some who even believe that it’s even more valuable than the Mona Lisa. Two professors, who studied the mechanism for years, found that the mechanism’s date was set to begin in 205 BC.

The mechanism has a dial with a fixed ring on the front representing the ecliptic, with the 12 signs of the zodiac marked in 30-degree sectors. This is in line with the Babylonian custom of assigning 1/12th of the of the ecliptic zodiac sign without accounting for the variables in constellation boundaries.

There’s also a movable ring that indicates the months and days of the Sothic Egyptian calendar – 12 months of 30 days, plus five extra days distributed throughout the year. The mechanism is worked by turning a small hand crank into the largest gear, which was linked to a crown gear that moves the date pointer on the front dial to set the correct day.

Furthermore, turning the hand crank would also cause interlocked gears inside the mechanism to rotate, causing simultaneous calculations of the position of the sun and moon, the moon phase, eclipse and calendar cycles.

 

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