The Enduring Mystery of the Antikythera Mechanism

Aleksandr Zykov, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Aleksandr Zykov, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In 1900, a team of sponge divers submerged themselves into the sea off the island of Antikythera between mainland Greece and Crete and emerged with a curious find. Exploring a Roman shipwreck, they brought up a bronze-and-wood object that defied description. It looked like a clock, but not quite; it resembled a gear or wheel, but held no hints that it was once attached to any mode of transport.

The Antikythera mechanism, as it came to be known, was largely ignored for the next half-century, as researchers were preoccupied with the other artifacts found in the shipwreck and lacked the tools to see through its corroded exterior. But in recent decades, the importance and capability of the Greek-born device thought to date to the 1st or 2nd century BCE has slowly been unspooling. Depending on how you define the term, it may be the world’s first computer.

Although investigation into the strange box began when it was first retrieved, it wasn’t until researchers began using radiographs to examine its inner workings that the true nature of the Antikythera mechanism was discovered. Inside, they found 30 bronze gears that was operated by a hand crank. About the size of a shoebox, it acted as an astronomical calendar, predicting the cycles of the solar system in the coming decades. Lunar months and eclipses could also be anticipated. Greek zodiac signs and Egyptian calendar dates appear on the front. By turning the dial to one of the 365 days on its face, the user could anticipate the exact position of the Sun and Moon.

While X-rays could provide some basic structural information to investigators, microfocus X-rays, originally developed to find tiny fractures in turbine blades, were also put to use, revealing faded inscriptions that haven’t been visible for thousands of years. Tiny letters 1.2 millimeters tall told users what they might see when operating it.

There’s still much left to learn about the Antikythera mechanism. No one is quite sure who made it or for what purpose, although it’s possible a school may have been the beneficiary of its results. It’s also possible the Antikythera mechanism was devised to tell fortunes, as it provided information about eclipses that were associated with good and bad omens.

The remains of the Antikythera mechanism are housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece, along with sculptures and other relics from the dive. With the site of the wreck still being scouted, it’s possible more answers about this strange, impeccably designed machine may still be lurking at the bottom of the sea.

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

Archaeologists Discover the Jousting Yard Where Henry VIII Had His Historic Accident

National Trust, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
National Trust, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Henry VIII may have never earned his reputation as an ill-mannered tyrant if it weren't for injuries he sustained at age 44. Now, as Live Science reports, archaeologists have uncovered the infamous jousting yard where that history-changing accident took place.

Prior to the beheading of Anne Boleyn—his second of six wives—King Henry VIII was regarded as a kind, gregarious leader by those who knew him. The point where descriptions of him changed their tone coincided with a fall he took on January 24, 1536.

While jousting at Greenwich Palace, Henry was tossed from his armored horse and further injured when his steed fell on top of him. The incident caused him to lose consciousness for two hours and nearly cost him his life.

Though it was never diagnosed, some experts believe Henry VIII sustained a brain injury that day that altered his personality. From that point on, he was characterized as irritable and cruel. He was in constant pain from migraines and an ulcerated leg, which could also explain the mood shift. The (sometimes violent) dissolution of most of his marriages occurred post-accident.

Ruins of the jousting yard, or tiltyard, where that fateful incident took place are located 5.5 feet beneath the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site, the former site of Greenwich Palace. After falling into disrepair, the palace was demolished by Charles II, and the exact location of the tiltyard was forgotten. A team of archaeologists led by Simon Withers of the University of Greenwich used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to locate the remnants buried beneath the ground earlier this year.

The giveaways were the footprints of two octagonal towers. The archaeologists say these were likely the foundations of the bleacher-like viewing stands where spectators watched jousting matches. That would place the historic tiltyard about 330 feet east of where it was originally thought to be situated.

The radar scans provided a peek at what lies beneath the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site, but to learn more, the archaeologists will need to get their hands dirty. Their next step will be digging up the site to get a better look at the ruins.

[h/t Live Science]