Time Machine

You may have heard of the Antikythera Mechanism: a mysterious clockwork device, over two thousand years old, that was found in a Mediterranean shipwreck in 1902. Archaeologists have puzzled over it ever since its discovery, and the atavistic doohickey has meanwhile fueled many an Atlantean’s febrile imaginings. Now, a team of researchers have announced that they have determined exactly what the Mechanism does, but the mystery of how such a thing came to exist at all in 80 B.C. has only deepened.

Today’s Physorg newsletter informs me that, using “three-dimensional X-ray computation tomography and high-resolution surface imaging”, a group of “stunned scientists” have established that the device is indeed an astronomical calculator, as had long been suspected, but one of staggering complexity. Using thirty-seven gears, with two clock faces for display, the Mechanism tracked the movements of Sun and Moon with astounding sophistication and precision. It modeled the Metonic cycle, in which the Moon returns to the same phase on the same day every 235 lunar months, and a lot more besides:

The machine was a 365-day calendar, which ingeniously factored in the leap year every four years.

And it not only provided the Metonic cycle, which was known to the Babylonians, it also gave the so-called Callippic cycle, which is four Metonic cycles minus one day and reconciles the solar year with the lunar calendar.

It could also predict lunar and solar eclipses under the Saros cycle, a 223-month repetitive interplay of the Sun, Earth and Moon. This function, presumably, would been useful for religious purposes, given that eclipses are traditionally taken as omens.

The Machine was also a star almanac, showing the times when the major stars and constellations of the Greek zodiac would rise or set and, speculatively, may also have shown the positions of the planets.

But even more impressive is a tiny pin-and-slot device that factors in a movement of the Moon that, for centuries, puzzled sky-watchers.

In this so-called main lunar anomaly, the Moon appears to move across the heavens at different speeds at different times — the reason being its elliptical orbit around Earth.

This is, of course, a level of technical ingenuity that was not to arise again until the 18th century or so, and it raises baffling questions, foremost of which, in my mind at least, is: if such engineering skill existed in the world 2100 years ago, what became of it? Why is this the only known example? Why would the practical utility of such expertise not have been so overwhelmingly obvious that the Machine Age didn’t dawn two millennia sooner?

I can only imagine that the artifact was the work of some hermetic society, and that somehow, as would have been more possible in the ancient world, the genie never got out of the bottle. After all, there was no Internet to leak the story. As far as we know, anyway.

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