A team of British researchers recently proposed a digital reconstruction of the Antikythera machine. This reconstruction work is the most advanced to date concerning this relic. According to the leaders of the study, one thing is certain: the technological knowledge of the ancient Greeks exceeds our idea until today.
What is the Antikythera machine?
The Antikythera Machine (or Antikythera Mechanism) is considered to be the first antique analog calculator known. This made it possible to calculate astronomical positions using manual gears (cogwheels). This involved anticipating the movements of the planets that the Greeks knew at the time – as well as the Sun and the Moon – in order to correlate them with the calendar of societal events (for example, the Olympic Games).
To our knowledge, there is only one specimen of this machine, the bronze fragments of which were discovered in 1901. These were found in the wreckage of a Roman galley prior to 87 BC. AD, near the Greek island of Antikythera. Above all, this single copy is incomplete and only represents a third of what the machine really was.
A remarkable digital reconstruction
Due to its historical value, no one has attempted to dismantle this mysterious machine. Nevertheless, a research team from the University College of London (United Kingdom) recently proposed a remarkable digital reconstruction and above all, an unprecedented advance. Their publication in the journal Scientific reports March 12, 2021 details this work carried out from tomographic scans to obtain a volume from measurements. However, these same scans dating from several years had already revealed inscriptions hidden in the machine, namely mathematical data concerning its operation.
The study leaders combined the tomographic scans with calculations by US curator Michael Wright. The person concerned had in the past built an incomplete replica. The researchers also took into account the calculations of the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides. This last choice was rather judicious insofar as to obtain a faithful replica, it is incumbent to integrate the postulates in force during Ancient Greece. Among these postulates, we find the idea that everything revolves around our planet (geocentrism).
A brilliant ultra-precise mechanism
From their work, the scientists thought that the Antikythera machine came from a engineering under engineering. The astonishment was such that they felt that our ideas of the technological capacities of the ancient Greeks must be called into question. In fact, digital reconstruction has shown that the machine’s mechanisms are ultra-precise. Everything is millimeter and this is not a coincidence, since the manual gears fit in a compartment whose depth is only 2.5 cm.
The researchers were also surprised by the machine’s capabilities. The latter could calculate the ecliptic lengths of the moon, of the Sun as well as that of the planets. It could also calculate the synodic phases of the planets, predict eclipses, and heliacal rises and sets of stars and large constellations.
Errors were nonetheless discovered. However, these are not not the fact of the mechanism itself, but from the theory of geocentrism. If the geometric calculations were of a certain finesse, this erroneous theory made it much more difficult to predict the movements of the planets. For researchers, the next step will be to carry out the physical reconstruction of the machine, using their recent digital reconstruction.