The Antikythera Mechanism Gives Up More of Its Secrets

The Antikythera Mechanism has fascinated and puzzled researchers for over a century. Now, an international team of scientists has announced that they’ve finally deciphered more secrets from the world famous machine.

Discovered in a shipwreck on the floor of the Aegean Sea off the coast of Greece in 1901, the Antikythera Mechanism is an intricate high-tech relic from an ancient age. Dated around 150 B.C., the device was used to calculate astronomical events and other celestial happenings.

Because of its advanced technological design, the device has been described as an ancient computer. By deciphering a few words from the corroded fragments of bronze gears and plates, experts were able to guess that the Antikythera Mechanism was an astronomical instrument. However, many of its inscriptions remained hidden.

Now, the Antikythera Mechanism has been broken into 82 pieces, with some being inscribed with a faded ancient text. These inscriptions were all but impossible to read — until now. After 12 years of intensive study, and using cutting-edge computer scanning equipment, scientists have been able to decode some of the inscriptions.

Around 3,500 characters, some of which are only 1/20th of an inch (1.2 mm) tall, gave the user the ability to see exact times of eclipses of the moon and the sun, and the motion of celestial bodies; sort of like a philosopher’s guide to the galaxy.

The international team of scientists deciphered just a quarter of the original text, most of which came from the innards of the 2,100-year-old remains. Team member Mike Edmunds, an emeritus professor of astrophysics, said at a press conference:

Alexander Jones, a professor of the history of ancient science at New York University, who is also part of the team, said:

The Antikythera Mechanism was originally enclosed in a wooden cabinet with dozens of interlocking brass gears. The deciphered language pretty much confirms what archaeologists had already suspected — that the Antikythera Mechanism was designed as a clockwork calendar that showed the phases of the moon, the position of the sun and the planets, and even the time of predicted eclipses. Jones added:

The Antikythera Mechanism has a handle on the side, and by turning this, it rotated the gauges in the front and rear. The user could set a date, and then the mechanism would reveal the astronomical phenomena that would occur.

Physician Yiannis Bitsakis, who also spoke at the presentation, explained that the NASA website now details all the eclipses of the past, and those that are to occur in the future, saying:

With the decoding of the inscriptions more questions arose, such as the color of a forthcoming eclipse. Edmunds explained that:

Nevertheless, it is understood that the overriding objective of the mechanism was astronomical and not astrological. Alexander Jones, a history professor at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York, believes:

Xenophon Moussas, a space physics professor, said:

Edmunds explained how it all started, saying:

After the painstaking process of reading each of the tiny letters, the team concluded that the style of the text (both formal and detailed) implied that it was designed to be more than just a rich collector’s plaything, with Edmunds saying:

The researchers believe that the device was most likely made on the island of Rhodes; surprisingly, they also believe that it’s not unique. It’s only unique in the sense that it is the only one to have ever been discovered.

Because of slight variations in the inscriptions, the team points to at least two people being involved, and there may have been more people making its gears. Edmunds said:

There are over a dozen pieces of classical literature that refer to devices such as the Antikythera Mechanism over a period from around 300 B.C. to A.D. 500  The calculator could add, multiply, divide, and subtract.

It was also able to align the number of the lunar months with years and display where the sun and the moon were in the zodiac. It did contain certain imperfections, but yielded a clear snapshot of the astronomical knowledge at the time, said Jones, adding:

It remains unclear why the technology was lost, with the same mechanical complexity remaining unrivalled for at least another 1,000 years, with the appearance of medieval clocks in European cathedrals.

Scientists all agreed the Antikythera shipwreck is still the most important wreck to have been discovery in human history. Now, they’re hoping that by revisiting the shipwreck, there will be more pieces uncovered that may have been overlooked, or possibly even another similar mechanism.

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