Discovered in a shipwreck off the coast of Greece in 1901, the Antikythera Mechanism was used to model the known universe some 2,000 years ago. Not only was it able to predict lunar and solar eclipses and the positions of the Sun, the Moon, and various planets at any given time, this ancient machine could also track the dates of the earliest Olympic Games.
And now Christián C. Carman, an historian from the National University of Quilmes in Argentina, and physicist James Evans from the University of Puget Sound in the US have analysed its parts to discover that not only were its clock-like gears and dials 1,000 years ahead of their time, but they started ticking in 205 BC - up to 100 years earlier than previously reported.
Publishing in the journal Archive for History of Exact Sciences, the pair say they figured this out by comparing the movements of the mechanism to ancient Babylonian eclipse records and identified that it was programmed to begin working on 12 May 205 BC.
"The calculations take into account lunar and solar anomalies (which result in faster or slower velocity), missing solar eclipses, lunar and solar eclipse cycles, and other astronomical phenomena,” the University of Puget Sound explained in a press release. "The work was particularly difficult because only about a third of the Antikythera's eclipse predictor is preserved."
According to John Markoff at The New York Times, no one is quite sure who built the Antikythera Mechanism, or where. Being so incredibly advanced for its time, archaeologists have suggested that one or some of the most eminent Greek scientists of the time, such as Archimedes, Hipparchus and Posidonius, likely had some kind of involvement with it.
But now that we know the machine didn’t start working till 205 BC, we can probably rule out one of these possibilities. The year 205 BC is seven years after the death of Archimedes, which means it’s very unlikely that the invention had anything to do with the man who has come to be known as one of the most famous mathematicians and inventors in human history.
“We know so little about ancient Greek astronomy,” Evans told Markoff. “Only small fragments of work have survived. It’s probably safer not to try to hang it on any one particular famous person.”
Another deduction that can be made by the analysis is that the algorithm that enables the Antikythera to predict eclipses was not based on Greek trigonometry, as has previously been assumed. The New York Times reports that during the 1970s, archaeologists had dated the inscriptions that appear on the mechanism to around 87 BC.
But Carman and Evans have now dated them to between 150 and 100 BC - at a time when Greek trigonometry didn’t even exist. This suggests that a more ancient form of mathematics, developed by the Babylonians and based on Greek methods, was likely to have been used to create the Antikythera.
To find out more, check out this 2012 BBC documentary about the Antikythera Mechanism below: