A return to Antikythera

I always try to inject the history of technology into every class, however for me the history of technology isn’t just about its digital offshoot, but rather technology in general. After all, technology – in a general sense – is using what you know to achieve a goal. I’m as interested in the Oldawan and Acheulean toolmaking industries, the abacus, the slide rule, the ENIAC, and the Analytical Engine as I am in Apple, artificial intelligence, space travel, and bionics.

That is why I was overjoyed to see this story on Sky news, stating that divers will be using the most advanced diving suits ever made to search out the rest of the components of the fabled Antikythera mechanism (that’s a picture of the original up above).

This is really two tech stories in one: The first is the development and use of the diving suits, and the second is the search for the remaining components of the mechanism. I’ll start with the suit.

The exosuit, as it’s called, is a pretty impressive device. It reminds me of a modern version of the Big Daddy from Bioshock. As the article states it’s fully articulated at the joints allowing for full movement, has claws for grasping whatever treasure the diver may find, transmits video via fiber optic cable, and control can even be taken over by people topside in case the diver is rendered incapable. It can operate at 1000 feet, and because it’s fed by cables the diver can stay down as long as necessary. I believe it’s one of the indicators of the future of deep exploration, a great step forward.


The Exosuit

But the real story here is the search for the remainder of the mythical Antikythera mechanism. This is a long, involved story so I will try to be brief, yet complete.

In 1901, divers off the coast of Antikythera, Greece, discovered among an ancient wrecked ship what appeared to be a complex, gear-driven device that turned out to be around 2000 years old. It took scientists over 100 years to determine what it was, and how it worked. Eventually it was discovered that this device was used to track all sorts of information in intricate detail: The movement of the stars and planets, tides, predict when both solar and lunar eclipses would take place to name but a few, and it did so accurately to the second. It even accounted for leap years! It is believed by most to have been built by fabled mathematician Archimedes.

A recreated Antikythera mechanism, from livescience.com.

A recreated Antikythera mechanism, from livescience.com.

It was so advanced that nothing like it had been seen up to that point, and it took another 2000 years (that’s two entire millennia!) before anything even came close to it again. Some say it’s the first analog computer ever made, but simpler machines such as the previously-mentioned abacus could be classified similarly.

The Antikythera mechanism, after extensive investigation and input from many specialists, not to mention many, many years, was slowly recreated digitally and pieced back together. This new dive, then, is incredibly exciting, as it will hopefully piece together some of the lingering questions that still remain. It is my opinion that, with all due respect to the marvelous creations developed throughout computing history, the Antikythera mechanism – because of the time of its development and the precision of its functions – is the single most amazing piece of technology ever created.

I have embedded two full-length documentaries below that examine the device, its restoration and recreation, and the current state of knowledge in regards to it. The first is from the Ancient Discoveries series, the second is from NOVA. They’re both incredibly interesting, you won’t be disappointed!