"There is at least one
ancient invention that proves
beyond all doubt that one civilisation in the ancient world possessed technical knowledge which no modern scientists had previously suspected. As it was found
in the sea off Antikythera, a small island north west of Crete, it is known as
the Antikythera Mechanism." (1) So wrote renowned author and skeptic Arthur C.
Clarke of an artefact that remains a puzzle to our accepted view of world
In 1900, on the
day before Easter Sunday, a team of divers discovered a shipwreck off Antikythera (left) whilst attempting to find sponges.
The sunken ship’s hull was full of bronze statues and other ancient artefacts
that were later retrieved and delivered to the National Archaeological Museum in
Athens for cleaning and restoration. It was not until 17th May 1902
that a leading archaeologist examined the artefacts and recognised the outline
of cogwheels in one of the lumps of bronze and wood. The writing on the case
confirmed that the item had been made in 80 BCE.
In 1958 Derek J. Solla Price, an Englishman
who then worked at Cambridge University and who later worked as the Avalon
Professor of the History of Science at Yale University in America, examined the
mechanism. Using a process for restoring oxidised objects, Dr. Price was able to
salvage some of the mass and from these pieces he attempted to rebuild the
However it was not until 1971 when X-ray
photographs were taken of the artefact by the Greek Atomic Energy Commission,
that the mechanism's array of meshing gears was finally revealed (2,3). Price
remarked that, "nothing like this instrument is preserved elsewhere. Nothing comparable to it is known from any ancient
scientific text or literary allusion. On the contrary, from all that we know of
science and technology in the Hellenistic age, we should have felt that a device
could not exist". (4)
Work on the
ancient inventions artefact revealed that on the outside it had
consisted of dials set into a wooden box with at least 20-gear wheels inside.
The box was covered with inscriptions that included an astronomical calendar.
The mechanism also included a system of differential years.
crank spindle set the gears in motion at various speeds, turning pointers on
three dials that calculated the rising and setting times and phases of the Moon,
and the positions of the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn all
with a high degree of accuracy (5). "It appears that this was, indeed a
computing machine that could work out and exhibit the motions of the sun and the
moon and probably also the planets" Solla Price stated (6).
Arthur C Clarke, wrote of the device in ‘Technology and the Limits
of Knowledge’ in ‘The View from Serendip’, "Looking at this
extraordinary relic is a most disturbing experience. Few activities are more
futile than the ‘what if....’ type of speculation, yet the mechanism positively
compels such thinking.
Though it is over two thousand years old, it represents a level which our
technology did not reach until the eighteenth century…If the insight of the
Greeks had matched their ingenuity, the industrial revolution might have
begun a thousand years before Columbus. By this time we would not merely be
pottering around on the Moon, we would have reached the nearer stars.’" (7)
inventions have been discovered that further illustrate that our
ancestors enjoyed a degree of technology that should have been unavailable to
them. One of the most intriguing of these inventions has been called the
Baghdad Battery. In the late 1930’s Dr. Wilhelm König, a German archaeologist
employed by the State Museum in Baghdad was examining a consignment of finds
from a settlement that had once been occupied by the Parthians.
"something rather peculiar was found, and, after it had passed through several
hands, it was brought to me. A vase like vessel of light yellow clay, whose neck
had been removed, contained a copper cylinder, which was held firmly by
asphalt. "The vase was about 15 centimetres high; the sheet-copper cylindrical
tube with bottom had a diameter of 26 millimetres and was 9 centimetres long.