by Virginia Quach, age 14
In the year 1900, pieces of an ancient device that would come to be
known as the Antikythera mechanism were discovered under the sea by
sponge divers and taken to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens,
When seen from a distance, The Antikythera mechanism
simply looks like a rock. However, when studied closely, it becomes
clear that it is a rather intricate device. Corroded together inside a
lump of bronze are different sized, triangular-toothed gears layered
over each other. Around these gears is the remains of a ring containing
inscribed Greek symbols.
Following the discovery, scientists tried to
decipher the object but were unsuccessful. X-ray imaging suggested that
the device was a tool for astronomy. But due to the limited technology
of the time, scientists were unable to discern how it operated. So the
mysteries of who created this device, and for what purpose, went
unsolved for more than a century.
In 2006, the Antikythera mechanism again sparked the interest of researchers. Mike Edmunds, a researcher at Cardiff University in Wales, and his team performed CT scans on pieces of the device. Through clearer imaging, they uncovered more Greek inscriptions and revealed the 3D structure of the gears. In addition, some of the inscriptions provided insight into the device's potential origins.
Many pieces of the Antikythera mechanism are still missing, but researchers have worked to find the meaning behind the inscriptions within the device. Doing so, these experts hope to understand how fragments of the object fit together to create its form.
Years of study have led scientists to believe that the Antikythera mechanism was shaped similarly to a clock. Fragments of wood stuck on pieces of the device gave hints that it was set within a wooden case. Similar to a mantel clock, the front face had a circular opening with rotating pointers. On the side, there would have been a knob or handle used to control the device. This knob could be wound forward or backward and, as it turned, gears within the box interlocked and moved at least seven hands at varied speeds. Experts believe that the hands showed the celestial movements of the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
On the back of the machine's case, researchers also discovered two dial systems that ancient Greeks probably used as a calendar. With the Antikythera mechanism, the ancient Greeks would have been able to find the dates of lunar or solar eclipses, and predict the motions of the heavens to a high degree of accuracy.
Further research into the device's inscriptions led to theories on its origin. Classicist Paul Iversen of Case Western University in Cleveland suggested that the calendar showed month names used in Corinth and the colonies in northwest Greece. Iversen also reported that one dial revealed the time of major events such as the Olympics,
—a festival in northwest Greece, and
a festival in the south island of Rhode.
Radiocarbon dating on the inscriptions further indicate that the device was created around 65 B.C.E. In addition, some newly-discovered lettering on the device hints that its construction may date back to between 150 and 100 B.C.E. With this information, researchers posit that perhaps the Antikythera mechanism was first created in Rhodes and later shipped north. While some evidence indicates that philosopher Posidonius could have been the machine's creator, other evidence points to Archimedes, a mathematician and engineer, or possibly Hipparchus, an astronomer in Rhodes, as the maker of this ancient device.
Although many pieces of the mechanism are missing, destroyed, or still under the sea, research on the Antikythera mechanism confirms that the ancient Greeks once made devices of incredible sophistication to understand their universe better. Just like modern science today, the Greeks created complex machines to predict and test their ideas with hopes to advance their world.