Issue 15, July 2010
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The Antikythera Mechanism
Interview of Professor John Seiradakis to Leda Bouzali
The Antikythera Mechanism determined the time when the ancient “stefanites” games (Olympic games, Pythea, Nemea, Isthmia) should take place.
 
The Antikythera Mechanism determined the time when the ancient “stefanites” games (Olympic games, Pythea, Nemea, Isthmia) should take place.

An ancient shipwreck kept silent for centuries in the depths of the Antikythera sea only to be discovered by a group of sponge divers from Simi in 1900 spring at a depth of 50m. The divers made out part of a ship frame with all its cargo. It was a Roman cargo ship, 70m long and 25m wide, travelling from eastern Mediterranean to Rome and loaded with treasures, amphoras and dozens of bronze and marble statues. It was a startling discovery. With the help of Greek archaeologists, an arduous underwater excavation started and lasted until the fall of 1901. Eight months later, at the National Archaeological Museum, archaeologist Valerios Stais discerned amongst the calcified pieces of rusty bronze, certain fragments which appeared to be parts of a mechanism.

This mechanism proved to be the world-renowned Antikythera Mechanism, the oldest computer in the history of humanity, which continues to astonish us even today with its intricacy, accuracy and sophisticated technology.

“In my opinion, it is one of the Wonders of the world,” states Mr. John Seiradakis, Professor of Astronomy at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and member of the Greek and British Antikythera Mechanism Research Project.

“The fragments recovered give us a pretty good idea of the mechanism’s original form which consisted of at least 30 (possibly up to 37) gear-wheels with sophisticated layout, mounted on a wooden frame with an external dial. Two bronze plates on the frame served as “access doors” and protected the mechanism, which could model astronomical phenomena in remarkable detail.”

Professor Ioannis Seiradakis during his lecture at the affiliate Onassis Foundation in New York.
 
Professor Ioannis Seiradakis during his lecture at the affiliate Onassis Foundation in New York.

According to Professor John Seiradakis, “the Antikythera Mechanism can be considered a ‘computer’, in the modern sense of the word, which could input data, make calculations based on the input, and provide the result in scientific scales. It is a highly accurate computer which has astounded us.”

The mechanism was used to prepare calendars for planting and harvesting seasons, determine the time of future solar and lunar eclipses, and, on a cultural basis, designate the time for the Olympic Games and all the “Stefanites” games – games where the prize was the olive branch and not a pecuniary award. Such games included Pythia, Nemea and Isthmia, as opposed to Panatninaia, which were “chrimatites” (monetary) games. The mechanism featured also a 3,000-Greek-character user manual inscribed on its front and rear, as well as on the two doors. Mr. John Seiradakis points out that “based on the kind of the Greek writing, the mechanism is estimated to date back to 150-100 B.C. and reveals a lot about the extensive knowledge of Greek astronomy at the time."

The Antikythera Mechanism opens up a unique window to history giving us a condensed aspect of the astronomical knowledge of ancient Greeks, and through them, of the knowledge of ancient Babylonians. It is also a testimony to the excellent knowledge of ancient Greeks on mathematics and mechanical engineering.

“We did know that the ancient Greeks were acclaimed philosophers, poets, astronomers; what we did not know is that they were also master engineers. It was this part that astonished us,” comments Prof. Seiradakis. It is worth mentioning that the Antikythera Mechanism is superior in complexity to any other similar clock mechanism manufactured at the time and even after a thousand years.

It was Valerios Stais who first stressed the importance of the finding in a newspaper article in May 1902. Lieutenant Ioannis Theofanidis attempts then to build a replica but never manages to finish it. It is not until the mid 20th century when Derek de Solla Price is informed about the discovery of the geared mechanism dating to 2nd century B.C. and travels to Greece. It was then that he began his research which would last for 30 years. In 1959, he publishes his famous article entitled “An Ancient Greek Computer”.

The main fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism are exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
 
The main fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism are exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Recently, Manos Roumeliotis from the University of Macedonia built a computer simulation of the Antikythera Mechanism, while Alan Bromley and Michael Wright have X-rayed the fragments and published revealing articles.

In 2001 commenced a thorough research of the mechanism which integrated in 2005 the use of innovative technologies (high-resolution imaging systems, multi-light photography, three-dimensional tomography) on behalf of a group of Greek and British researchers from the Universities of Athens, Thessaloniki and Cardiff. The research is under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and is funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The research group consists of astronomer Mike Edmunds and mathematician Tony Freeth from the University of Cardiff, astronomer John Seiradakis from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, astronomer Xenophon Moussas, and physicist and historical analyst Yiannis Bitsakis from the University of Athens. With them are working chemist Dr. Eleni Magou and archaeologist-museologist Mary Zafeiropoulou from the National Archaeological Museum, with a team of conservators, as well as philologist and paleographer Agamemnon Tselikas from the National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation. Finally, the Hewlett-Packard technical team, headed by Tom Malzbender who realized the ground-breaking digital imaging mechanism, PTM Dome, has played a decisive role. It was this method that rendered the deciphering of the almost erased texts and data on the surface of the mechanism possible. The data had remained illegible even with the use of the best systems of both conventional and digital photography. In October 2005, the multi-member X-Tek team took an eight-and-a-half-tonne X-ray tomographer (CT), known as BladeRunner, to Athens to inspect the Antikythera Mechanism. The three-dimensional images produced from the examination of the ancient mechanism’s fragments by the state-of-the-art tomographer revealed unknown aspects of its interior. This method was the first to unveil hidden inscriptions thinner than one tenth of a millimetre and important findings regarding the intricate internal structure of the gears and axes.

A model of the Mechanism was recently created at the Aristotle University of Salonika.
 
A model of the Mechanism was recently created at the Aristotle University of Salonika.

The researchers have managed to fathom the mechanism revealing its peerless for its era technological sophistication. They have concluded that the inscriptions related to solar and lunar movements and that the gear-wheels induced variations in the representation of the Moon’s elliptical orbit, according to the Hipparchos model. Equally important is that the Roman ship is estimated to have sunk around 65 B.C. after leaving the island of Rhodes, according to specific findings. Researhers surmised that Hipparchos, who lived in Rhodes, contributed to the mechanism’s design.

According to John Seiradakis “The research is far from complete. There are still many dark aspects of the mechanism’s function –gears, holes, even a cross-shaped component– whose purpose we are not aware of. I believe that the mechanism had on its upper side a miniature of the planetary system which moved showing the course of the planets on the sky.”

But is the Antikythera Mechanism the only one of its kind? Professor Seiradakis remains open to the possibility that similar mechanisms may have been built from the same metal, namely an alloy of bronze and tin. Nevertheless, this was considered a very valuable metal and thus recycled very often (a well-known example or statues built from recycled raw material is the Colossus of Rhodes, and many more statues from that era, excluding the statue of Charioteer). Therefore, the rest of the mechanisms, if any, have possibly been destroyed over the course of time.

The ground-breaking digital imaging mechanism, PTM Dome, realized by the Hewlett-Packard technical team, revealed almost erased texts and data on the surface of the mechanism. Fragment 19 carries astronomical data.
 
The ground-breaking digital imaging mechanism, PTM Dome, realized by the Hewlett-Packard technical team, revealed almost erased texts and data on the surface of the mechanism. Fragment 19 carries astronomical data.

A great deal of modern technology, from steam machines to robots, is attributed to mechanical toys, ‘automata’, that bloomed during the 18th century. In their turn, those toys stemmed from the art of clock-making, which art, as many more accomplishments of the modern world, seems to have roots in ancient Greece.

Prof. John Seiradakis concluded that “it is obvious that the Antikythera Mechanism stands crucial witness to the ability of ancient Greeks to deal with technologically advanced problems and come up with innovative solutions, which, even in current terms, we cannot but admire and respect.”

Note: Prof. John Seiradakis and Tom Malzbender gave a lecture at the Onassis Affiliated Public Benefit Foundation in New York, on May 25th, 2010, in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution and Goddard Space Flight Center of N.A.S.A.

 
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