X-rays and advanced photography have uncovered the true complexity of the mysterious Antikythera mechanism, a device so astonishing that its discovery is like finding a functional Buick in medieval Europe.
In 1900, some divers found the wreck of a Roman vessel off the Greek island of Antikythera. Among the other treasures remanded to the Greek government was an unassuming corroded lump. Some time later, the lump fell apart, revealing a damaged machine of unknown purpose, with some large gears and many smaller cogs, plus a few engraved words in Greek. Early studies suggested it was some type of astronomical time-keeping device – researcher Derek J. de Solla Price laid the groundwork by establishing initial tooth counts and suggesting that the device followed the Metonic cycle, a 235-month pattern commonly used to predict eclipses in the ancient world.
The full function and beauty of the Antikythera device remained hidden until recent studies subjected it to more advanced imaging techniques. First, it was photographed using a technique that exposed the surfaces to varying lighting patterns. This created different levels of contrast that allowed the researchers to read far more of the inscribed Greek text than was previously possible. Then, x-ray imaging was used to create full 3-D computer models of the mechanism, which revealed for the first time some of the more complex and detailed gear interactions. The Greek National Archaeological Museum’s discovery of some boxes filled with 82 additional mechanism fragments added new information as well.
The findings, published in Nature, are probably best described as “mind blowing.” Devices with this level of complexity were not seen again for almost 1,500 years, and the Antikythera mechanism’s compactness actually bests the later designs. Probably built around 150 B.C., the Antikythera mechanism can perform a number of functions just by turning a crank on the side.
Using nothing but an ingenious system of gears, the mechanism could be used to predict the month, day and hour of an eclipse, and even accounted for leap years. It could also predict the positions of the sun and moon against the zodiac, and has a gear train that turns a black and white stone to show the moon’s phase on a given date.