The Museum Gallery
The Antikythera Mechanism
A perplexing artifact was recovered by sponge-divers from a shipwreck in 1900 off the coast of Antikythera, a small island that lies northwest of Crete. The divers brought up from the wreck a great many marble and and bronze statues that had apparently been the ship's cargo. Among the findings was a hunk of corroded bronze that contained some kind of mechanism composed of many gears and wheels. Writing on the case indicated that it was made in 80 B.C., and many experts at first thought it was an astrolabe, an astronomer's tool. An x-ray of the mechanism, however, revealed it to be far more complex, containing a sophisticated system of differential gears. Gearing of this complexity was not known to exist until 1575! It is still unknown who constructed this amazing instrument 2,000 years ago or how the technology was lost.
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 such a device could not exist. Some historians have suggested that the Greeks were not interested in experiment because of a contempt-perhaps induced by the existence of the institution of slavery-for manual labor. On the other hand it has long been recognized that in abstract mathematics and in mathematical astronomy they were no beginners but rather "fellows of another college" who reached great heights of sophistication. Many of the Greek scientific devices known to us from written descriptions show much mathematical ingenuity, but in all cases the purely mechanical part of the design seems relatively crude. Gearing was clearly known to the Greeks, but it was used only in relatively simple applications. They employed pairs of gears to change angular speed or mechanical ad- vantage, or to apply power through a right angle, as in the water-driven mill.
The device is displayed in the Bronze Collection of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.