Ancient Greek technology in Lego

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Late in 2010, it was announced that Andrew Carol, an Apple software engineer, had used 1,500 different lego pieces to construct a model of the ancient Antikythera mechanism. Why so much time and (Lego) effort? Because the original mechanism, rescued in 1901 from a shipwreck found off the coast of Antikythera in the Aegean, has captivated attention ever since its discovery.

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It is in essence an ancient analog computer, dating from 150-100 BC, which uses a system of 30-50 miniaturised gears to make mathematical calculations. The calculations are intended to predict, with incredible accuracy, the movements of the sun, the moon, several of the other planets known to the ancient Greeks, and the rising and setting of specific stars.

The miniaturised complexity of the Antikythera mechanism makes it a unique find from the ancient world. Its technology is equivalent to that of 19th-century devices. Yet this was most probably not simply a one-off creation of such advanced technology 2000 years earlier.

Instead, the Antikythera mechanism should be seen as one of the most sophisticated outcomes of a much wider interest in skilled mechanical craftsmanship spread out across the Mediterranean and wider ancient world. Scholars have recently argued for example that the principles of astronomy on which the mechanism is based relate as much to computational methods of Babylonian astronomy as Greek astronomy. The ancient world, it turns out, may well have been much more technologically savvy (as well as inter-connected) than we have given it credit.

The on-going study of this ancient technological marvel has in turn been made possible only by the invention of modern imaging technology. The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, which brings together researchers from the UK and Greece with technological giants like Hewlett-Packard and X-Tek Systems, has been able to construct an incredibly high definition 3D surface-imaging device, able to analyse the water-rusted remains of the device in situ in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens where it currently resides.

These new technologies have not only helped scholars to understand the working of the mechanism better, but also to decipher the thousands of words inscribed onto the device and its accompanying ‘operation manual’ handbook. In doing so, it has been shown how, in addition to predicting solar eclipses and other astronomical phenomena, the device was also calibrated to forecast the correct times for the great panhellenic athletic festivals at Olympia, Isthmia and Delphi. And with other surviving bits of the mechanism still being conserved and studied, who knows what else this ancient computer might have been able to do!

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Reprinted from Neos Kosmos www.neoskosmos.com