Hacker’s Discovery Changes Understanding Of The Antikythera Mechanism

With all the trained academics who have pored over the Antikythera mechanism in the 120 years since it was pulled from the Mediterranean Sea, you’d think all of the features of the ancient analog computer would have been discovered by now. But the mechanism still holds secrets, some of which can only be appreciated by someone in tune with the original maker of the device. At least that what appears to have happened with the recent discovery of a hitherto unknown lunar calendar in the Antikythera mechanism. (Video, embedded below.)

The Antikythera mechanism is fascinating in its own right, but the real treat here is that this discovery comes from one of our own community — [Chris] at Clickspring, maker of amazing clocks and other mechanical works of art. When he undertook a reproduction of the Antikythera mechanism using nothing but period-correct materials and tools four years ago, he had no idea that the effort would take the direction it has. The video below — also on Vimeo — sums up the serendipitous discovery, which is based on the unusual number of divisions etched into one of the rings of the mechanisms. Scholars had dismissed this as a mistake, but having walked a mile in the shoes of the mechanism’s creator, [Chris] knew better.

The craftsmanship and ingenuity evidenced in the original led [Chris] and his collaborators to the conclusion that the calendar ring is actually a 354-day calendar that reflects a lunar cycle rather than a solar cycle. The findings are summarized in a scholarly paper in the Horological Journal. Getting a paper accepted in a peer-reviewed journal is no mean feat, so hats off to the authors for not only finding this long-lost feature of the Antikythera mechanism and figuring out its significance, but also for persisting through the writing and publication process while putting other projects on hold. Clickspring fans have extra reason to rejoice, too — more videos are now on the way!

43 thoughts on “Hacker’s Discovery Changes Understanding Of The Antikythera Mechanism

    1. Exactly! And I suspect Chris was especially well-prepared to make the discovery since he was undertaking the build of his replica using period-correct methods and materials. Getting into the same mental space that the original maker was — to the extent that any two people with a few millennia between them can — was probably the key to realizing what the original intent was.

    1. I don’t know that there’s a Nobel for experimental archaeology. I don’t think this is the first scientific paper from a youtuber either, there are many very talented youtubers out there.

      1. It’s going to depend on the metric, I guess. I imagine all of the Numberphile presenters have several papers to their names. Or how you define a “Youtuber” as even I have both a channel and papers (unrelated to each other, both in time and subject matter)

        But if the metric is “Papers written as a consequence of something discovered while making a YouTube video”, then perhaps it is. It would be very hard to find out. But if I was forced to guess, I would guess that it isn’t the first to satisfy that metric.

    2. “So this is first scientific paper and discovery from “youtuber” ?”

      No, quite a few youTubers are PHDs. You have to write papers to get a PHD. And they are still writing them.

  1. I still got the reply email from Chris when I suggested he take on the Antikithera mechanism after his clock build. I never thought it would wind up furthering the understanding of the mechanism itself, and result in the publication of a peer reviewed research paper.

      1. I think you need ThisOldTony for that one…
        And great suggestion Rob! One of the more interesting surviving elements of computational and mathematical history. Now better understood than before!

  2. And here I am just enjoying the videos on itself without bothering about its significance :D I am just really happy this series continues when it appeared to be dead for so long. While I don’t have any direct usage of what I am seeing there, I find it refreshing to see how much can be accomplished without having extremely precise absolute measurements, and without CNC machinery.

  3. Damn… does that mean I’m gong to have to rework all my wooden versions of the machine I’ve been slaving over and sending out to the world this past 6 years?!
    Darn you Mr. Chris Clickspring!! …Queue silent scream…
    Great job on the discovery though. I’ve not yet read the paper, but I might grab a coffee this rainy Sunday afternoon and settle down for a god read. It will be interesting to see how this new measurement of time effects the timing of the machine as mine work perfectly as they are set up with a solar calender, but I guess that time could really be measured in anything of fixed length, so it wouldn’t really matter to the mechanical aspect of the machine.
    Anyhow, brilliant work. I doff my cap in your general southerly direction.
    Dave Goodchild.

    1. If your machine is built close to the original, then you don’t need THAT much change. That’s the beauty of what they discovered. Only the hole pattern under one of the calender rings is slightly different (354 iso 365 divisions). The rest is an additional gear train that depends on the existing gearing.

      1. Additional gear train…!?! I already have 55 gears in my machines!!
        I might just to go and lie down at the thought of adding even more gears to something that’s already so complicated that I have to remind myself how to build one every time I put one together – and I’ve just completed my eighth… so I really should know what I’m doing by now… probably… 😳

  4. Congratulations on being published great read @Clickspring Do you have any idea what the extra lunar gearing should look like or where it would fit in the mechanism? Do you have plans to explore that topic in the future?

  5. Great job! I am a amateur archaeologists… that means I’ve been wasting my spare time all my life for no pay only knowledge that will never be heard because my friends and family are still fascinated over Pompeii…🙄. I cannot wait to see the next video… Thank you for sharing… -Ed Martin

  6. I am afraid this is not the first paper that uncovers the mechanism of Antikythera. A fellow Greek physicist and astronomer (which I also happen to know personally) has been working years with this and has previously shown working replicas, at the same time explaining the main principles of its function. His team even went through the effort of trying to reconstruct it using tools and methodologies that we suspect existed in antiquity: https://aip.scitation.org/doi/abs/10.1063/1.5091433

    I feel that some work is miscredited or at least accredited unfairly.
    Still, good work remains to be good work and needs to be seen and shared.

    1. Standing on the shoulders of giants. Science always builds on previous work. And in the paper, I see your fellow accredited.

      20.Aristeidis Voulgaris, Andreas Vossinakis, and Christophoros
      Mouratidis, ‘The New Findings from Antikythera Mechanism Front
      Plate Astronomical Dial and Its Reconstruction’, Archeomatica vol. 8,
      (Dec 2017), pp14.

      Not his latest paper from 2019, though. But that seems to be behind a paywall. Maybe this is an argument against having scientific papers behind paywalls?

      1. We could probably all agree that scientific knowledge should be free. However, a lot of journals that don’t charge readers to access the papers instead charge the authors to publish the papers. It’s about $ 1000 per paper. all the work of doing the research and writing the papers is done by academics, the journals pay nothing. All the work of peer-review is generally done by other academics, for free. All the journal has to do is then provide servers to host the papers on. Some open-access journals publish tens of thousands of papers per year, all paying $ 1000. Funded scientists generally get this money from the funding agencies, who in turn get it from taxpayers or even charity donors. It is basically a scam.


  7. Actually makes sense in a way. The Greeks were great sea-farers, and they would be more interested in the tides (which are linked to the Moon phases) than anything else. I guess it was made to predict when it was safe to cross some shallow parts of the Mediterranean Sea and save time in a safe way.

    If you connect the dots, the ‘duh’ moment follows. Often, anyway. ;)

    1. This is a good thought, but unfortunately, the Mediterranean doesn’t have any significant tides outside of isolated “sloshing” basins like the northern Adriatic.

      The moonphase would still be very important to mariners of that age, because of the light provided… or unavailable, as the case may be. Trying to sail along rocky coastlines without any navigational aids in pitch blackness at the new moon? No thanks!

  8. Stunning work, both engineering and academic. I’ve posted your links and the BHI page to some of the greek Αστρονομία & Επιστήμη (astronomy and science) pages on social media, and they’ve already been shared around. Thank you Chris, really looking forward to the next few videos….. Ευχαριστώ πολύ from another greek island, not far from Antikythera.

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