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  #1  
Old 06-09-2011
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The Antikythera Device

The Antikythera Device. It sounds like equipment from a good SF novel, doesn't it? But it's not, and associated with it is a good tale.

In 1901, divers discovered a corroded, encrusted artifact in a Greek shipwreck lost to mother ocean around 100 BC. No one could make heads or tails of it and so it sat without further examination for a century. Five years ago, X-ray tomography of its ancient mechanism revealed gears and pulleys made to surprisingly close tolerances. But what did it do? Further, why was such a device kept on a boat? It seems incongruous to keep a delicate machine in that kind of environment. It was a puzzle wrapped in a conundrum. After much calculation, its true purpose was at last apparent -- to calculate celestial phenomena, such as a Solar eclipse. That the ancient Greeks could build such an intricate device at all boggles the mind. But that's not the whole story.

The rest of the story is about the recreation of the device -- using Legos! Here is a 3 minute video that that shows it working and includes a nice disassembly and explanation.

I asked my best bud which he thought was the more astounding fact -- that the Greeks could build such a device, even at the culmination of the Hellenistic period, or that a clever engineer could recreate it using only Lego pieces. His reply was priceless: That the Greeks could build something like that 2200 years ago but can't balance their budget today.
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Well it at least it won't rust!
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I find it funny that we often look back and are amazed at how smart ancient civilizations were. In reality, we are the one's who aren't smarter than they. We just have more practice and trial and error.
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The original at least was "pocket sized" LOL
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The ancient greeks, (and a few others), were fairly advanced. Think of it, how much knowledge have we accumulated in 200 years. Some of these civilizations spanned millenia. Cultural overcomming of superstition to embrace reason, followed by a stable society, (with rule of law), that includes respecting of property, and life, and a field of craftsmen, is all that is required for a society to advance. The greek scientists came up with many of the foundations for our own modern science.

The Antikythera was a cool device, (early GPS?).
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Capt Bill, the (unappreciated) advanced state of Greek civilization was the main point of my post (along with the "ain't it neat, gee whiz" angle). Perhaps folks might be interested in some thoughts on the device.

The Antikythera device implies a level of technological sophistication at the end of Hellenic period that heretofore I did not appreciate. For instance, it employs the same principles Charles Babbage used to design his ground-breaking difference engine nearly 2000 years later. It is the only evidence I know of that the ancients thought to realize a calculation of this complexity in a physical mechanism. Now, keep these statements in perspective. Babbage's difference engine was a machine to solve polynomials in the general case. It was far more complex than the Antikythera device, which was designed to solve a single polynomial. If anyone else knows of a Hellenic machine that performs similarly complex mathematical operations, please share! I'd love to know about it.

This device also implies a level of commitment and determination that should take your breath away. Those gears and all the other parts in it were hand-made. Most were sized and shaped to within a few thousandths of an inch or else they'd bind. Only the most skilled artisans could have done that. Ever tried to shape metal by hand? It is far slower than working in wood. Further, we all know from boat work how building something by hand works. Build a throw-away model to try out an idea. Build a proof-of-concept hunk of a preliminary design. Change the design to something that works better and try it again. Repeat for another hunk. Build a rough, then build the real thing. The amount of labor involved in building this device is enormous! I wonder how many man-months it took to get to a working model?

What should we infer from the device's presence on a boat? Why not keep the priceless, one-of-a-kind device safe on land and simply carry the written results of the calculation? There's a good chance that multiple copies of the machine were built.

I could go on, but beyond here is speculation rather than inference. Besides, I suspect your eyes are already glazing over.

Tom
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dacap06 View Post
......The amount of labor involved in building this device is enormous! I wonder how many man-months it took to get to a working model?.....
This is pretty cool. But we do marvel at these efforts, given our cultural bias of today's pretty cozy existence. In those days, skilled labor was willing to work every minute of the day for food and shelter. That's how the pyramids were built. No one was going to restaurants, blogging on the internet, even reading books. Think of the time you would have to fill as the average skilled worker. They were also very willing to set off on projects that would take generations, not months. That we should marvel at. Thanks for sharing.
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dacap06 View Post
... His reply was priceless: That the Greeks could build something like that 2200 years ago but can't balance their budget today.
That's right, if they need more cash they just went out and conquered a nearby state and extracted enough treasure, tribute, et cetera to balance the books. Not really an option today.
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