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Gears are discovered on the Antikythera mechanism, May 17, 1902

-May 17, 2013

On May 17, 1902, a Greek archeologist noticed precision gear wheels embedded in an ancient artifact of corroded bronze and wood. The device would come to be known as the Antikythera mechanism, the oldest known complex scientific instrument.

Discovered in 1900 on the wreck of an ancient Roman merchant vessel near the island of Antikythera, the 2000-year-old device was designed to calculate astronomical positions, predict eclipses, and calculate the timing of the ancient Olympics. It is now regarded as the world's first mechanical computer.

Enclosed in a wooden box roughly 30-cm tall and 20-cm wide, the mechanism contained more than 30 bronze gear wheels crafted with the precision and complexity of a modern clock.

Because of its condition, the mechanism wasn't investigated until 1951 when English physicist Derek J de Solla Price began studying it with x-rays. Price used the mechanism fragments to develop a model incorporating the ancient Metonic cycle of the sun and moon, which was key to understanding the device.

Recent use of 3-D x-ray and photography techniques have allowed researchers to see the gears in layers and study the fragments in greater detail to learn more about the mechanism's purpose and origin.

The mechanism could be from as early as 140 BC and is technically more complex than any known device for at least a millennium afterward. Months inscribed on the dials were identified as Corinthian, meaning it is likely from northwestern Greece or Syracuse in Sicily. Syracuse was also the home of Archimedes, a renowned ancient scientist and mathematician who later built similar devices.

The mechanism featured front and back output dials that predicted lunar and solar eclipses on the basis of Babylonian arithmetic-progression cycles. Included were dials using the Metonic cycle, a Saros eclipse-prediction dial, and a dial that followed the four-year cycle of the Olympiad and its associated Panhellenic Games. 



The creators of the Antikythera mechanism took theories about how astronomical bodies move, and made a machine that would calculate them, which was a revolutionary idea.

It is still being studied, and is now at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Below is a video of a working model of the Antikythera mechanism:




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For more moments in tech history, see this blog. EDN strives to be historically accurate with these postings. Should you see an error, please notify us.

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