Hands On — The Kosmos in a Box

Hands On — The Kosmos in a Box
Front: The gears and pointers at the front of the mechanism. There is a zodiac scale, which displays the positions of the sun and moon; a calendar scale,
which shows the date in the Egyptian calendar; and a moon phase display.
Back: Elements colored in bronze are those for which there is direct evidence; elements in copper are those that have been conjectured to complete the model. Back Dials: The main upper dial is a 19-year, 235-month Metonic calendar; its two subsidiary dials are Olympiad and Callippic calendars.

We call it the Antikythera Device, or sometimes “the world’s oldest computer.” That’s not what the machine’s maker called his box. He would never have wanted it lost in a Roman shipwreck, near the obscure, rocky island of Antikythera.

If that maker saw his high-tech gizmo now, boy, what a comedown. It sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean under a tonnage of pottery, statues, and furniture. It was smashed to pieces. Its stout wooden frame flaked away like wet paper. It was also severely corroded. Fossil dinosaurs have been found in better shape.

Once, there was room to claim that modern ideas about this machine’s complex functions might be far-fetched. However, in 2005 the machine’s fragments were digitally CAT-scanned, revealing that the Greek maker carved specific instructions inside. Those scales and labels eliminate any doubt: we’ve got a crank-driven, precisely geared bronze orrery.

The Antikythera Device predicts the position of the sun and the phases of the moon, and it probably tracks all five visible planets. It also predicts eclipses, and, as a final throw-in bloatware feature, it will tell you whenever the Greek Olympic games occur. All this in a single mechanism from 85 B.C., or very near it.

To understand the huge extent of the lost knowledge here, we need to grasp what this lost object once meant — not to us who found it, because for us it’s mind-blowing — but within the context of its own time and place.

All we’ve got is a few hints. We’ll have to blue-sky it a little.

Let’s consider the maker. For him, that machine was surely no marvel. He had to laboriously hand-cut dozens of meticulous gear teeth into more than 30 hard bronze wheels. Then he mounted all those gears in working order, complete with frame, dials, pointers, and a crank. A long, hard, exacting job.

This machine is not a royal gift, all gussied up as a fancy collectible. It’s also not commercial, because it’s much too complex for untrained users. This cosmic box is the work of an academy. It’s a pocket universe from a university. It was built by a graduate student. Somebody young, smart, and determined, stuck in front of a professor.

I’m inclined to suspect that this machine actually was our friend’s academic education, that the box was his working diploma, a physical proof of the ordeal he had been through. Because it’s portable: it’s the size of a laptop. It’s a bit heavy — you sure wouldn’t want to swim with it, if your galley was sinking off Antikythera — but you could lug it with you around the known world.

You could take it home. Back to the family estate, with the vineyards and the olives and the goats. There you could crank it up and show your Dad where the moon would rise on his next birthday.

Your Dad’s a tough army veteran; he scourged the Earth with the heirs of Alexander’s generals (that’s where he got the huge estate and all the slaves), but you’re a fine gentleman from the Rhodes Academy.

It took you four long years to build your kosmos in a box — you, and maybe 20 other elite students. Most freshmen couldn’t cut the metal there. They just couldn’t hack it. They flunked out. You graduated: you successfully built a model cosmos. Now you fully get it about astral epicycles. You can crank history forward and backward; yes, you can even predict eclipses. “Well, son,” says soldier Dad, beaming approval, “maybe I grumbled about the cost of your college education. But no wonder we run the known world! By Zeus, we Greeks are civilized!”

It is absolute, metal proof that you are not just empty talk like those so-called “cosmopolitan” philosophers. You can tell horoscopes with your device, even get a decent job teaching. It also proves that you matriculated from Rhodes, where the Rhodians build giant war machines — where they built the Colossus of Rhodes out of somebody else’s war machines. The Colossus is truly one of the Seven Wonders of the World!

Wondrous things happen in Rhodes, and even weirder ones in its close ally Alexandria, the boomtown of the Hellenistic world. In Alexandria they build wild gizmos like jet-propelled aeolipiles. You grease up one of those babies, fire up its steam cauldron, and it swiftly becomes the fastest-moving object known to man.

Of course, you have to explain a lot to get skeptical Greeks to support advanced aeolipile makers. You have to explicate to doubtful people that the air, the pneuma, is not “nothing,” but possesses material substance, unlike the element fire, which has immaterial substance. Physics can get complicated. It can get hugely complicated, really Greek and subtle.

Unlike the unsubtle Romans, who also have strong ideas about a universal cosmic order. Except, unlike your nifty little gearbox, their orderly ideas involve huge aqueducts and roads. Solid, world-gripping stone roads, with Roman armies marching on them.

So the problem here isn’t too few kosmos boxes. The problem is too many ancient computers. Once the sense of cosmic wonder fades, the boxes are arcane, they’re fussy, they’re mystically detached and geeky. No business model there. Too many features. Not enough apps to empower the everyday user.

And all that fancy bronze gearing … hey, bronze, that’s valuable stuff. The kids can repurpose grandpa’s fusty old gearbox and make some new objects of solid, practical value. Like coins. Coins and swords. Bronze coins and swords … who can’t love those? Coins and swords are universal!

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Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling is a science fiction writer and part-time design professor.

View more articles by Bruce Sterling


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