Antikythera mechanism in Scientific American

2. December 2009 10:17

Close-up of mechanism's front dial, from reconstruction by Michael Wright

In the December issue of Scientific American there's a lengthy feature on the Antikythera mechanism by film-maker Tony Freeth, driving force behind the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project. He gives some background to this 2000-year-old artefact and its significance as well as talking through his team's research on it and their results.

It's fitting that Scientific American has returned to the mechanism, as the magazine published one of the most important early articles on this ancient Greek device - written by science historian Derek de Solla Price, 50 years ago in 1959 (vol 200, no 6, pp 60-67). In the article, he laid out his theory that the battered pieces once formed part of a surprisingly sophisticated "calendar computer", calculating the movements of the Sun and Moon. He was right of course, but he didn't know the half of what it could do. It would be many years before researchers realised that the device was calculating eclipses too, and probably the epicyclic motions of the planets. Price did fully grasp its importance, however. "Nothing like this instrument is preserved elsewhere," he wrote. "On the contrary, for all we know of science and technology in the Hellenistic Age we should have felt that such a device could not exist."

While on the subject of Price's early work, I also love this quote from an article he wrote in the British science magazine Discovery, around the same time: "If it is genuine, the Antikythera machine must entail a complete re-estimation of ancient Greek technology. Its discovery 55 years ago... was as spectacular as if the opening of Tutankhamen's tomb had revealed the decayed but recognisable parts of an internal combustion engine."

Disappointingly, Freeth's latest article offers nothing new for those who have been following the subject. But it's a good opportunity to read the Antikythera story as told by one of the main protagonists. You need a subscription to access it on the Scientific American website but you can read it free here.


Sunken cities part 2

1. December 2009 15:35

In case you didn't look yet at my article on drowned cities, New Scientist has added pictures now, so it looks a lot better! You can read it here.