ancient wonder and modern mediocrity

Writing in The Observer for 20th August 2006, Helena Smith opens an article on the Antikythera mechanism by writing that

102 years after the discovery of the calcium-encrusted bronze mechanism on the ocean floor, hidden inscriptions show that it is the world's oldest computer, used to map the motions of the sun, moon and planets.

This isn't a great start. First, the 102 years isn't right.

The mechanism was found amongst remains of an ancient shipwreck discovered off the coast of Antikythera by sponge divers in October 1900. Counting this as the discovery date puts the find at almost 106 years ago.

That's not a good date to use, however. The mechanism itself was discovered a few years later by Valerios Stais. On 17th May 1902, to be precise, which is still a little over 104 years ago.

(NB, the exact circumstances of Stais's discovery aren't clear from the sources I checked. In Derek Price's famous essay (see below), Stais is described as 'examining some calcified lumps of corroded bronze that had been set aside as possible pieces of broken statuary' before suddenly recognising 'the fragments of a mechanism' among them.)

(The Wikipedia article on the Antikythera wreck, however, has Stais noticing the gear mechanism while 'diving to search the area of the wreck'. The Wikipedia article cites two books as references: The Atlas of Ship Wrecks & Treasures by Nigel Pickford and Deep water, ancient ships: the treasure vault of the Mediterranean by Willard Bascom. I don't have either book to hand and can only assume the Wikipedia article relies on one or both of these volumes for its version of the mechanism's discovery circumstance.)

Next, Smith suggests this mechanism is only now being described as the world's oldest computer, a notion she emphasises at the end of the article:

For years scholars had surmised that the object was an astronomical showpiece, navigational instrument or rich man's toy. The Roman Cicero described the device as being for 'after-dinner entertainment'.

But many experts say it could change how the history of science is written. 'In many ways, it was the first analogue computer,' said Professor Theodosios Tassios of the National Technical University of Athens. 'It will change the way we look at the ancients' technological achievements.'

The problem with this?

Way back in the June 1959 issue of Scientific American Derek John de Solla Price (see also Essays on Derek Price for more on this remarkable scholar) published an essay, An Ancient Greek Computer, in which he notes:

Putting together the information gathered so far, it seems reasonable to suppose that the whole purpose of the Antikythera device was to mechanize just this sort of cyclical relation, which was a strong feature of ancient astronomy. Using the cycles that have been mentioned, one could easily design gearing that would operate from one dial having a wheel that revolved annually, and turn by this gearing a series of other wheels which would move pointers indicating the sidereal, synodic and draconitic months. Similar cycles were known for the planetary phenomena; in fact, this type of arithmetical theory is the central theme of Seleucid Babylonian astronomy, which was transmitted to the Hellenistic world in the last few centuries B.C. Such arithmetical  schemes are quite  distinct from the geometrical theory of circles and epicycles in astronomy, which seems to have been essentially Greek. The two types of theory were unified and brought to their peak in the second century A.D. by Claudius Ptolemy, whose labors marked the triumph of the new mathematical attitude toward geometrical models that still characterizes physics today.

The Antikythera mechanism must therefore be an arithmetical counterpart of the much more familiar geometrical models of the solar system which were known to Plato and Archimedes and evolved into the orrery and the planetarium. The mechanism is like a great astronomical clock without an escapement, or like a modern analogue computer which uses mechanical parts to save tedious calculation.

A 'modern analogue computer'. Price even suggested it was used to compute or 'save tedious calculation.'

Which has me wondering exactly what hidden inscriptions have been found and how extraordinary they must be to make a journalist fail to do even a rudimentary background check before rushing in to print.

Especially with regards the Antikythera mechanism and Derek Price. Neither is especially famous outside their specialist fields, but within them, they are each superstars.

Price was one of the pre-eminent science historians of the past century and is considered one of the two unofficial fathers of modern scientometrics.

And the Antikythera mechanism has been '[revolutionising] our thoughts about the technical achievements of ancient Greece' ever since Price's 1959 article.

I know, I know. Deadlines always loom. And a journalist has barely got time to check their spelling, let alone their sources.

But a few minutes with Google would have given Smith the background laid out above, and a few more minutes would have lead her to the web-site of The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project. (Hell, I'm almost willing to assume Smith is aware of the site. One of the people she quotes in her article -- Xenophon Moussas -- is in the project's core research team.)

The Project site is chock-full of images, models, animations and old-fashioned text, including an excellent introductory essay (credited to an anonymous Administrator).

This essay -- and the whole site -- makes it clear the discoveries reported by Helena Smith are 'building on... previous work' to reveal a more complex mechanical computer than Price considered the mechanism to be back in 1959.

Not quite the same thing as the mechanism being considered a computer for the first time in 2006.

Author: Brian Forte

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