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March 2015

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The lost technology

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The landscape of places in which once ancient cultures were blooming is filled with extraordinary buildings and their complexity and construction is still breathtaking. Egyptians had their pyramids and temples; Greeks built the Parthenon; Babylonians – the legendary Hanging Gardens, placed on terraces supported by special construction of narrow, higher and higher corridors. Romans have their place in history as excellent builders of roads, the Colosseum, temples and aqueducts. They were the ones who showed the world how beautiful sculptures of marble and alabaster can be. 

Development of technologies of the ancient world seems to have a logical continuity and be well understood until we come across a device known as the Antikythera mechanism which is an ancient astronomical computer.

In 1901 divers examining a Roman shipwreck which sunk close to the island of Antikythera in the Eagan sea brought to the surface many historical treasures, including a device which although created in ancient times has preceded similar constructions by almost a thousand years! This mechanism spent over 2,000 years under water, was made by Greeks and allowed to calculate the position of not only the Sun and the Moon but also denoted the location of five planets known at that time.

In order to examine this device the National Archaeological Museum of Athens has obtained the newest state-of-the-art computer tomograph which by creating a 3-D picture of the scanned object allowed the scientists to re-create the construction of significant parts of the mechanism.

It consisted of a box, 31.5x19x10 cm, which could be opened from both sides. The frontal dial represented the movements of the Sun and the Moon; the background consisted of the Zodiac and the Egyptian calendar used by Greeks.  On the back of the mechanism there were two additional dials. One of them allowed synchronising the solar and lunar calendars and the second one allowed forecasting solar and lunar eclipses. The machine could even model the irregular movement of the Moon at the elliptic orbital. The gears placed on the frontal dial represented the movement of planets. The whole mechanism was powered by a crank placed in the front. The newest research from 2008 also proved that the mechanism showed which ancient Olympic Games were to take place in a given year. Up until modern days the scientists remain impressed by the precision of the device’s construction and the ingenuity of Greek inventors. The technology used for creating the machine is comparable to an astronomical calculator.

The Antikythera mechanism forced the scientist to review their ideas of ancient technology. However, this portable planetarium is not the only proof of ancient times’ hi-tech. Let’s just remember Heron, the Alexandria-born scientist from 1 AD. He constructed an automat which after putting a coin in would temporarily start water flowing through a faucet. Other inventions worth mentioning are also the Serapeum chests, the statue of Ramses and the stone of Abu Rawash whose cutting, using a single operation is difficult to imagine. The process of making the cut was made so that the surface of the cut is gradually increasing.
Unfortunately, most of the knowledge gained by ancient Greek scientists and inventors is gone. It is the Roman Empire which is most often blamed for that, as it had no interest in developing techniques other than military. The main cause was a great supply of free or cheap labour force. Nevertheless, fragments of knowledge how to construct astronomical calculators were preserved for many centuries. Such calculators are said to have been built by Byzantines and Arabs, yet these were very simple constructions and could never measure up to the Antikythera mechanism, which is for engineering what Acropolis is for architecture.

When admiring the achievements of modern science we should remember our legacy and the ancient technologies which had its part in the setting of the modern world. 

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