The Antikythera Mechanism and Jared Diamond: Lessons from Antiquity

“…from all we know of science and technology in the Hellenistic age [late fourth to late first centuries BC] we should have felt that such a device could not exist.”

Price, D. de S. 1959a. “An Ancient Greek Computer.” Scientific American 200.6: 60.

It was in the year 1900 when a team of Greek divers off the coast of the island of Antikythera (located in the straits of Crete and the Peloponnese) first discovered the ancient wreck of a Roman merchant vessel which had met its ultimate fate at sea sometime near 60 BCE. While the ship was salvaged—its contents originating from many diverse trading locations—one item in particular has mystified historians for the greater part of a century since its existence and significance became widely understood. This device is known as the Anikythera Mechanism.

The Mechanism was originally crafted out of wood and bronze, containing plates, gears, inscribed parts, and dials; being used as an advanced early computer for the purposes of both astronomical predictions and timekeeping. It has been described as embodying “a powerful repertoire of means for transferring and transforming rotary motions: arbors and tooth engagements of gearwheels and contrates, differential and epicyclic gearing, and devices for generating periodic nonuniform motions that included pin-and-slot coupling and likely also slotted arms. With these resources the designer succeeded in mechanizing a profusion of distinct chronological cycles as well as a planetarium that portrayed the simultaneous nonuniform motions of the Sun, Moon, and planets through the zodiac.” (Jones, 223)

Here’s a reconstructed image of the Mechanism to help you get a sense of what to picture:

Tony Freeth, Images First Ltd., London

Historians have been awestruck by the sheer technological advancement represented by the Mechanism, struggling to adequately account for it in relation to the existing archeological record. By all means, based upon what is known of ancient Mediterranean, such a device predates comparable equivalents by close to a millennia; and yet nonetheless it exists. For an extended coverage of the Mechanism, its discovery, and it subsequent historical analysis, I recommend turning to the research of Dr. Alexander Jones in A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World (Oxford University Press, 2017).

While the device is fascinating in terms of its origins, utility, and sophisticated craftsmanship, its existence and discovery stand to teach us several significant lessons when it comes to conducting historical research and thinking historically. These key principles are true irrespective of the specific geographical area or chronological period one chooses to study, perhaps increasing all the greater in importance for those civilizations and historical eras we have little existing remains from. What the Antikythera Mechanism demonstrates is that even when historical research in a given region has been highly productive, there remain blindspots in our capacity to adequately account for on the basis of data alone. This should cause us to exercise thoughtful caution when analyzing a given technology in light of the existing archeological record, determining how widespread its use may have been, and considering the significance of its utility in ancient settings.

From the Antikythera Mechanism, as well as Jared Diamond’s classic publication, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (W.W. Norton and Company, 1999), we can therefore establish several useful rules-of-thumb for how to think historically about the ancient world.

1) Just because a civilization possesses the means to create and utilize technology does not guarantee that a technological, scientific, or industrial revolution will follow.

“Without diffusion, fewer technologies are acquired, and more existing technologies are lost.”

Diamond, 258

Jared Diamond has identified several conditions carrying explanatory power for why a given technology may or may not be adopted by its host society. These include:

  1. Its relative economic advantage compared to existing technology. An extremely costly piece of technology is unlikely to obtain widespread use due to restrictions of resources or finances.
  2. Its social prestige and value. A device that obtains commodity status may be able to convince potential investors or buyers to shoulder greater purchasing costs if such affords them greater social status or upward mobility.
  3. Its compatibility with vested interests. Technology which is seen as useful for accomplishing a desired end goal will be more likely of obtaining investment and circulation.
  4. The ease in which its advantages can be observed. Technology which attracts greater attention and public knowledge will have an increased chance of accumulating potential buyers and investors. Firsthand knowledge of such advantages will facilitate its desirability.

In the case of the Antikythera Mechanism, the construction of such a sophisticated device made it incredibly costly to produce and knowledge of its existence was likely limited to “mechanicians, philosophers, and scientists” likely contributing to its rarity. (Jones, 242)

Diamond writes:

“Once an inventor has discovered a use for a new technology, the next step is to persuade society to adopt it. Merely having a bigger, faster, more powerful device for doing something is no guarantee of ready acceptance. Innumerable such technologies were either not adopted at all or adopted only after prolonged resistance.” (247) The Antikythera Mechanism is an example of such, even in light of the advanced depiction of a clockwork universe.

“The Antikythera Mechanism and its ancient mechanical siblings” Alexander Jones observes, “made few converts to the idea of a clockwork universe, thus failing to accelerate the Enlightenment by a couple of millennia; nor were they the advance guard of an ancient Industrial Revolution. The science writer Arthur C. Clarke envisioned the missed potential in sensational terms: “If the insight of the Greeks had matched their ingenuity…we would not merely be puttering around on the Moon, we would have reached the nearer stars.”” (246) Such missed potential may strike us as unbelievable, but it helps to represent the truth of the particular historical rule outlined above.

Finally, Jared Diamond best reiterates why the Antikythera Mechanism (among other ancient technologies) was lost to the world for so long and why such may run counter to our modern assumptions:

“The importance of diffusion, and of geographic location in making it possible, is strikingly illustrated by some otherwise incomprehensible cases of societies that abandoned powerful technologies. We tend to assume that useful technologies, once acquired, inevitably persist until superseded by better ones. In reality, technologies must be not only acquired but also maintained, and that too depends on many unpredictable factors. Any society goes through social movements or fads, in which economically useless things become valued or useful things devalued temporarily. Nowadays, when almost all societies on Earth are connected to each other, we cannot imagine a fad’s going so far that an important technology would actually be discarded. A society that temporarily turned against a powerful technology would continue to see it being used by neighboring societies and would have the opportunity to reacquire it by diffusion (or would be conquered by neighbors if it failed to do so). But such fads can persist in isolated societies.” (257)

2) Our understanding of the ancient world is incredibly limited. We need to leave room for blindspots.

Prior to the actual discovery of the Antikythera Mechanism, if one were likely to describe it to a historian of Ancient Greece, such a device would have likely been labeled anachronistic for the historical period in which it originated.

“With respect to our knowledge of Greek planetary astronomy,” says Jones, “the interval from the time of Plato and Eudoxus to that of Ptolemy in the second century AD is a half millennium of darkness intermittently illuminated by flashes of evidence, and these flashes are sometimes seen reflected only in the possibly distorting mirrors of later writers’ testimony. We cannot tell a connected story, but we can point to certain key developments and try to understand how and why they happened, even if the chronology is much less clear than we would like.” (189) Even in light of the confirmed existence of the Mechanism, explaining exactly how and under what conditions it found use is incredibly difficult. Even after decades of intense study and analysis, the Mechanism still finds no corroboration amongst the archeological record:

“Although some elements of the Mechanism’s gearwork can be found in much less sophisticated inventions described in the Greek and Latin mechanical literature, the differential moon phase device and the contrivances for anomalistic motion that enabled the Mechanism to provide a reasonably faithful reflection of late Hellenistic astronomical theory have no known counterparts in other ancient artifacts or technical treatises.”

Jones, 223

Even once comparable technology resurfaced a millennia later, it was not completely equivalent to the Antikythera Mechanism, but came about by other independent means:

“Knowledge of a simple variety of geared mechanism, but so far as we know not the refined technology of the Antikythera Mechanism, survived into the Middle Ages and resurfaced centuries later in the Islamic world . . . the appearance of astronomically sophisticated planetarium clocks in 14th-century Europe reflects a reinvention of contrivances for achieving nonuniform motion rather than a resurfacing of ancient Greek ideas that had been lurking in a millennium of sources unknown to us.”

Jones, 241

The Mechanism, for this reason and others, exists as a historical anomaly so far as our best understanding of the ancient world is concerned. Nevertheless, the device still warrants our best attempts to explain its existence.

3) Technological sophistication does not appear in a vacuum. We should infer varying levels of development requisite to particular technologies.

The best efforts, made over the better half of a century of serious analysis, have increased our capacity to understand the who, what, when, where, why, and how behind the Mechanism. While searches to find equivalent sister-devices preserved through the centuries have so far come up empty, investigations into the surviving historical record have yielded some potential insights.

Writes Alexander Jones:

“At this point we are really talking not just about the individual Mechanism whose fragments are extant in the National Archaeological Museum—and which, after all, might never have been seen or operated by anyone except the craftsmen who made it—but about the whole class of ancient mechanized models of the cosmos. How extensive was this class, and how many people had direct experience of examples? M. G. Edmunds has assembled a list—which is not exhaustive—of (by my count) 18 Greek and Latin texts that allude plausibly or unambiguously to astronomical mechanisms, a respectable number that shows that the idea of such devices had wide currency. 

However,” he concedes, “in none of these texts does the author assert, in his own voice, that he has seen one. In the majority of the passages it is difficult to tell whether what is said about the mechanisms comes from personal experience or from reading about them, and a few are obvious fictions or literary tropes.” (238-239)

This leaves us to infer that whatever parallels the Mechanism may have had in the ancient world, they likely were few and far between, thus explaining why none outside the Antikythera Mechanism have survived to modernity. This should not however, lead us to conclude that the Mechanism was constructed randomly and without necessary precedent.

“Should we not suppose that the object whose fragments we chance to possess was the outcome of a long history of gear-driven astronomical mechanisms of progressively increasing complexity? Common sense tells us that the Mechanism was not a prototype without antecedents. It is too complex, too miniaturized, too polished a production to be the very first of its kind. But once all the key ideas behind the Mechanism’s workings had been discovered, an intense program of experimentation might have led quite rapidly to the device as we have it, perhaps within a generation and in a single workshop.”

Jones, 231

Only after the accumulation of the proper technical training, resources, means, and planning could the Mechanism’s development approached anything near spontaneity, but even such hypothetical rapid construction would still be dependent on sophisticated astrological and engineering knowledge. The Mechanism therefore, should not be seen so much as a historical impossibility as a historical improbability, existing in the realm of the unprecedented but not completely inconceivable.

Concluding Thoughts

The task of the historian is by no means a perfect nor objective one. What relatively few remains do survive from ages passed must be thoughtfully studied and connected together much like puzzle pieces, with the image becoming less clear the fewer pieces and farther back in time we go. If anything, historians are attempting to tell coherent stories of the past based on only a partial collection of plot points. As an (ideally) progressive discipline, historical research builds off of itself, improving upon previous theories as we advance in our understanding of the past based on a more complete accumulation of data points. Historical thinking requires innovation, open-mindedness, cautious advancement, and much epistemic humility because new discoveries such as the Antikythera Mechanism exist to completely throw a wrench in all we think we know.

Rather than adopting a fatalistic view of the past—believing that we can’t actually know anything in a true sense—discoveries such as the Mechanism should inspire instead a kind of optimism that stands ready to receive all that has yet to jump back into our collective consciousness; though it evades our precise memory. In this, the Mechanism is a symbol which stands ready to remind those of the nature of history which is by necessity, an incomplete one at best. History is reconstruction, history is interpretation, and history remains a foreign country despite our best efforts otherwise. By adopting the guiding principles articulated above though, we can better prepare ourselves to chart its waters.

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