Reverse Engineering the Antikythera Mechanism

Computers & Mobile Science Technology
Reverse Engineering the Antikythera Mechanism

Make: contributor Chris from Clickspring has an amazing series of videos on YouTube called “Reconstructing the Antikythera Mechanism.” In the series, the ancient and wondrous Antikythera Mechanism is introduced, explained, and then Chris goes about the very challenging task of trying to figure out how each component was made and then making it himself. It’s one (not insignificant) thing to try and duplicate the mechanism. It’s another to try and figure out how these components were made using the tools of antiquity (or their modern equivalents).

For those who may be unfamiliar, the Antikythera Mechanism was an analog calculator and orrery (model of the solar system) used to predict astronomical positions and eclipses for calendrical and astrological purposes. Astonishingly, it dates back to 150-100 BC. It was discovered in a Roman shipwreck off the coast of the tiny Greek island of Antikythera in 1901. Little is known about the Mechanism, if it was one-of-kind, or how many there were. It was not likely widespread technology for its time and when this specific device was lost at sea, clockwork technology capable of creating something this precise and complex did not appear again (as far as we currently know) until Europe in the 14th century.

For years, no one could get much information out of the heavily sea-encrusted lump of bronze. But increasingly better digital imaging technology has allowed the revealing of every part of the mechanism, allowing practical archeologists to create modern replicas of the device. The special thing that Chris does in his series is to not only recreate the device but to try and understand how it might have been created in the first place, by using the tools and likely techniques of the age. OK, he does use a lathe, too, and is not afraid to use modern technology once he’s figured out how the original makers would’ve likely done it.

Steampunk science fiction and culture takes its inspiration from the question of what might have happened if Charles Babbage’s mid-19th century design for an “Analytical Engine” (mechanical computer) had actually worked and had sparked a computer revolution over 130 years earlier. It is mind-boggling to think what would have happened if the Antikythera computer had become widespread technology in classical antiquity. Maybe that’s another idea ripe for sci-fi. As Chris points out in the intro video below, Arthur C. Clarke once commented that, if the ancients had know what they had, and this technology had become widespread, they could have gone to the moon in 300 years. That’s really fun to think about.


Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

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