Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Beware Greeks Bearing Technology

For they will inspire many a documentary and even the odd crazy theory. In a recent National Geographic documentary, two people build a version of the Antikythera mechanism, and what an amazing device it is. It can predict the sun's movements, the moon's movements (including the ability to seemingly speed up and slow down), the motion of the planets and eclipses. All with the turn of a handle, and in a small compact device.

At least, as far as we can tell. X-rays and examination of the old, crusted dial tells us some of this. What's not clear in the documentary is where examination ends and speculation begins. Still, these things were known at the (broadly speaking) time when the mechanism was built, and this would have been of interest, so why not have your own personal orrery?

But the amazing part is that this was built years before the recognised beginning of gears, and there are a lot of gears used. There has to be some time when gears were first used, so why not the ancient Greeks? But was there gears before them? Surely this is so incredible that it came from aliens? (This is mentioned, but quickly dismissed, thankfully.) There is the valid criticism that why haven't we found more example of gear use, or other similar devices? One explanation offered (and this is far as the program went) is that devices were made from bronze, and the metal was reused. I'd like a better solution than that, but the program skims over it. Could this be a case of 'we just don't know'? If so, better to admit that than to leave a conspiracy sized gap...

This is certainly a fascinating device for what it could do and for the time it was made. It's a shame we don't have more of it and more of others like it.


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