Merciless but also forgiving environment. The same sea has always been there, holding a secret, lately revealing just its surface. Throughout the passing years, salty water has been acting similarly to Ariadne's thread, providing a continuous and rock-solid link between us and ancient Greek technology, despite our ignorance. The story of a timeless piece.
Free diving has been mastered since the time of Homer, as written in Iliad, with its recorded apogee in 1913. Symian sponge diver Stathis Chantzis takes a single breath and dives at 88m. He stays there working for a duration of 3:58 minutes, rescuing the anchor of the Italian battleship "Regina Margherita". Stathis Chantzis represents the soul of all those thousands "homo-delphinus" diving with a kampanelopetra, soon to be replaced by men in diving suits with external air supplies.
It was then in fact sponge divers from the island of Symi, that chanced upon the Antikythera shipwreck in 1900, whilst looking for seafood just before Easter (fasting period). They were on their way to Africa for sponges and had to make this lucky stop at Antikythera due to bad weather conditions. A year later, the world's first major underwater archaeological expedition was organised. They discover and retrieve many artefacts from the area, which were more than enough to fill an entire museum.
Among the recovered items, a small rusty chunk of metal, having the size of a laptop. This discovery was about to change the history of science and technology, as we knew it. But not quite then. It was so complex, that it took us another 100 years to understand it: the Antikythera Mechanism. It turns out that, two millennia back, technology in Greece had advanced to enormous levels, comparable to the onset of the industrial revolution!
However, this archaeological expedition cost the life of one diver while two others were seriously injured from decompression sickness.
The Antikythera Mechanism is an astronomical calculator of ingenious design and unprecedented accuracy. It consists of many cooperating gears. Each pair makes a calculation and is fed to the next set until it reaches a rotating pointer, indicating an event. This makes it the world's first computer. Practically, one turns a side handle and makes predictions about celestial bodies, solar and lunar eclipses, star positions etc. It doesn't necessarily work in current time, but also in the past and mainly future, unlike a clock.
With its two displays, it predicts the natural motion of objects in the sky, such as the sun and the moon, including its phase. It informs us about important astronomical events, keeps track of solar and lunar calendars and predicts eclipses. The Olympics and other panhellenic games are integrated, bringing a social character to the instrument. The tiny explanatory inscriptions, engraved all over the machine, remind us of a modern gadget's user manual. Its architecture has a truly modern philosophy.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the Antikythera mechanism, is the implementation of the moon's variable motion. Someone in Greece, thought of an ingenious way of closely approximating elliptical motions out of circular gears. It took modern scientists several years to notice and understand this. To make it even more complex, gears rotate epicyclically within other gears and coaxial shafts subtract full revolutions. This gives us the first differential gearing in history! The device is impressively compact, having gears with teeth down to a millimeter. Those mind blowing concepts are truly the highlights of the Antikythera Mechanism. It took at least one and a half millennia longer to spot some of these ideas in any other civilization. The history of science and technology is in fact being rewritten due to this discovery. There are many open questions, too.
Why was this accumulated knowledge lost in between? Why didn't mankind enter the industrial revolution two millennia back? Who on earth made it? Why is there only one piece found? Mankind may be able and answer some of these in the future. Up to now, we believed that at ancient times, only crude gears were used for purposes like getting water out of wells. Little did we know that Greeks were doing mathematics, physics and astronomy with these! Even nowadays, only a handful of functional models of the Antikythera mechanism exist.
Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his crew, make further attempts in 1953 and 1976 to resurrect more ancient items, together with greek divers on board of "Calypso". From 2014 onwards, with the latest available piece of technology, the exosuit, divers still try... The story of this ancient technological gadget has been full of modern-era technology since its discovery in 1901.
In my view, the Antikythera Mechanism constitutes a clever educational gadget, that we admire over time. In this context, I hope it will raise your interest and perhaps even enable our children to learn by exploiting technology with an ancient twist.
Whilst reconstructing my own functional model, I wondered: Would it be possible for what was conceived and created 2100 years ago, to be manufactured just a couple of centuries back?