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The Antikythera Mechanism

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In 1900, a sponge diver named Elias Stadiatos discovered the wreck of a Roman cargo ship located near to cape Glyfada in Potamakia, 60m undersea and 30m from the shore of the small island of Antikythera, near Crete, Greece.

What made the greatest impression on him as he returned to the surface were the statues lying on the sea bed, but further investigation revealed an incredible cargo of luxury goods that included jewellery, pottery, fine furniture, wine and bronzes that dated back to the first century B.C. As astonishing as this find was, the most important discovery turned out to be a few green, corroded lumps that, when they eventually fell apart, revealed an astonishingly intricate mechanism comprising a few large gears and lots of smaller cogs annotated with a few engraved words in Greek. This, the last remnants of an elaborate mechanical device now known as The Antikythera Mechanism, represents the most sophisticated piece of engineering ever found in antiquity.

The Antikythera Mechanism

Early studies suggested it was some type of astronomical time-keeping device and establishing initial tooth counts suggested that it followed the Metonic cycle, a 235-month pattern commonly used to predict eclipses in the ancient world. But recently, advanced imaging techniques have allowed researchers to read more of the inscribed Greek text, and X-ray imaging has helped to create full 3-D computer models of the complex device revealing the full function and beauty of the Antikythera mechanism. Using an ingenious system of gears, operated by turning a crank on the side, the device can perform a number of functions. It can predict the month, day and hour of an eclipse, even accounting for leap years, it can predict the positions of the sun and moon against the zodiac and it has a gear train that rotates a black and white stone to show the moon’s phase on a given date. Very possibly it could also show the astronomical positions of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, the planets known to the ancients.

But the true genius of the mechanism goes beyond even the complex calculations and craftsmanship of a mechanical calendar. For example, the ancients didn’t know that the moon has an elliptical orbit, slowing down or speeding up as it moves through the zodiac, but the Antikythera Mechanism, probably built around 150 B.C., uses epicyclic or ‘planetary’ gears with a ‘pin-and-slot’ mechanism that mimics this apparent shifting in the moon’s movement, and while devices with this level of engineering complexity were not seen again for almost 1,500 years, the Antikythera mechanism’s compactness actually betters later designs. Researchers theorise that the device is based on an Archimedian design, and might even have been built by a workshop carrying on his technological tradition, but if the design had been ‘industrialised’ in such a way, it remains a mystery why have we never found another one like it.

Everyone loves a good mystery and this story – which I first read at io9 – while firmly anchored in historical fact, opens up all kinds of possibilities if you start to play the ‘what if…?’ game, especially in the science fiction and fantasy genres. What if this mechanism wasn’t invented by the ancient Romans, but created by a higher intelligence? I can imagine an alien craft, crash landed on Earth 1,500 years ago and in need of a spare part to get off the ground. Without the kind of technologies it would be used to it uses what is to hand to manufacture something to take the place of the piece it was missing and what we have here is actually one of the prototypes that didn’t quite work as well as was intended. An alternative is that this is a device manufactured to help send an SOS to the mothership so that stranded alien can call the intergalactic AA in order to be rescued.

The Antikythera MechanismBoth of these options open up a number of questions, what happened to cause the crash? How did it survive? Did it meet people? How did they react? How did the alien react? Did they communicate easily? How? By answering each of these questions, and similar ones, we can start to shape a story and some of the set pieces that would comprise the movie begin to take shape. In fact I can already see a movie that combines elements of E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Frankenstein, Stargate and even Starman, where the stranded alien isn’t a little kid it’s an adult, a non-hostile one, who befriends some poor Romans who help it to understand it’s surroundings and build the piece it needs to help it get home. In return the alien builds them this ‘toy’ to help them predict seasons, maybe grow crops more easily, and they prosper until one night a storm sinks one of their boats and leaves this mechanism at the bottom of the sea until a sponge diver recovers it thousands of years later…the end.

Another, slightly more cerebral route to go down would be to use it as the great discovery, the relic found by someone in Roman times that sparks huge interest because it is so far advanced compared to their own technology. In a case like this I see a slow-burn story in the vain of Contact, one that takes time to build but grows complex characters who ask difficult questions about who we are, where we come from and if we are really alone.

In my version of this story, we follow the device as it is discovered in a desert somewhere by a nomadic tribe and brought to a gathering where it is traded for a couple of camels. It is then brought to a village and sold to the local elder who debates it’s worth with his spiritual leader who, recognising it’s ability to put him out of a job, declares it evil and thus it is sold on to a passing caravan who bring it by land to a larger town. There the priests of the temple experiment with it and begin to discover some of what it can do, whereupon an elder declares that it needs to be sent to a larger temple in the big city and off it goes. Unfortunately the party are set upon by bandits who discard it but it is found again by a column of Roman soldiers heading back to the capital. They bring it to Rome where it is discussed at length by scribes and scientists who discover it’s tremendous worth but are torn between exploiting it to grow the power of the empire, or hiding it because it proves the heresy of the planets orbiting the Sun rather than the other way around. Eventually it is decided it should be removed from the city and taken to Greece where a Roman Scholar based there can reverse engineer the technology for them but before it arrives, the ship carrying it sinks and it is lost forever.

A nice twist to this story would be to impart the device with some kind of otherworldly power that has been noticed throughout history – hence the inscriptions around it, but we have yet to discover as we haven’t fully uncovered the mechanism or the text.

There’s clearly a lot of mileage in this story, I haven’t even touched the story of construction of the device itself, but there might well be a story there of an ancient scholar, an engineer, physicist and astronomer that pre-dates Galileo by many years and who constructs this device – against all the politics and religious doctrine of his time – in order to benefit his people and advance science by many years. However, his work is banned and he fails in his attempts which is why we are where we are in technological terms. The twist here would be the aliens watching us develop and then sighing in resigned frustration when close-minded dogma forces us to shoot ourselves in the foot and we end up developing much more slowly than anticipated and that’s why we haven’t been allowed to join the Intergalactic Space Federation!

So that’s it for this post, a lot of food for thought I think and definitely some stories here worth pursuing. Happy writing.


BTW, if you’re interested Scientific American has a two-part video about the Antikythera Mechanism and the imaging techniques used in the research.

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