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The Mysterious Antikythera Mechanism Is More Ancient Than We Thought

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As if the freakishly advanced Antikythera Mechanism wasn't astounding enough, a new analysis suggests the astronomical device is older than archaeologists assumed.

The Antikythera Mechanism was discovered in an ancient shipwreck near Crete in 1901 — a site that's still yielding remarkable archaeological treasures.


The clock-like assembly of bronze gears and displays was likely used to accurately predict lunar and solar eclipses, as well as solar, lunar, and planetary positions. It also tracked the dates of the Olympic Games. It wasn't programmable in the modern sense, but some refer to it as the first analog computer. Whatever its purpose, nothing like it would appear for another 1,000 years; it's truly an object out of time.

Archaeologists and historians aren't entirely sure when the machine was constructed, or by whom, though its design may have been influenced by the scientific teachings of Archimedes, Hipparchus, or Posidonius. But as the New York Times reports, a new analysis of the dial used to predict eclipses (which is set on the back of the device) is offering some important new clues:

Christián C. Carman, a science historian at the National University of Quilmes in Argentina, and James Evans, a physicist at the University of Puget Sound in Washington, suggest that the calendar of the mysterious device began in 205 B.C., just seven years after Archimedes died.

The mechanism was most likely housed in a wooden box and operated by a hand crank. The device itself bears inscriptions on the front and back. In the 1970s, the engravings were estimated to date from 87 B.C. But more recently, scientists examining the forms of the Greek letters in the inscriptions dated the mechanism to 150 to 100 B.C.

Writing this month in the journal Archive for History of Exact Sciences, Dr. Carman and Dr. Evans took a different tack. Starting with the ways the device's eclipse patterns fit Babylonian eclipse records, the two scientists used a process of elimination to reach a conclusion that the "epoch date," or starting point, of the Antikythera Mechanism's calendar was 50 years to a century earlier than had been generally believed.

The finding supports the idea, scientists said, that the mechanism's eclipse prediction strategy was not based on Greek trigonometry, which did not exist at the time, but on Babylonian arithmetical methods borrowed by the Greeks. [emphasis added]


This is kind of insane because it means the mechanism was already very old when the ship carrying it sunk sometime between 85 and 60 BC. It also suggests that the connection to Archimedes is very unlikely.

Read the entire report at the New York Times.