One of the topics we touched on at the beginning of How Computers Do Math was the ancient astrological calculator that is now known as the Antikythera Mechanism. As we said early in the book:
Every now and then, strange and wonderful mechanisms from antiquity are discovered. In 1900, for example, a device of unknown purpose containing numerous gear wheels forming a sophisticated mechanism dating from around 80 to 200 BC was discovered in a shipwreck close to the tiny Greek island of Antikythera. This contraption, which is now known as the Antikythera Mechanism or the Antikythera Calculator, was created during the early years of the Hellenistic Period: a golden age when science and art flourished in ancient Greece.
In many cases, objects like this prompt speculation that our antediluvian ancestors were the creators of complex mechanical calculators with which they could perform mathematical operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. In reality, however, the concept of zero (‘0’) as representing a true quantity in a place-value number system didn’t appear until around 600 AD in India. Without the notion of zero in this context, it is really not possible to create a mechanical calculator in any form we would recognize.
This is not to say that these ancient mechanisms were not incredibly cunning and refined. However, such instruments were probably designed to measure things or to track time in one way or another; for example, to help in predicting the seasons and the activities of celestial objects like the sun, moon, planets, and constellations.
The reason I mention this here is that one of my all-time heroes is a guy called Chris who is the man behind Clickspring (if you are interested in supporting Chris after reading this blog, you can use the Patreon.com website to donate $1 a month to his Clickspring account).
The thing is that Chris is recreating the Antikythera Mechanism using techniques and technologies that would have been available in ancient times. If you visit the Clickspring YouTube Channel, you will observe a series of videos under the title “Machining the Antikythera Mechanism.” The sub-title for this section is “A recreation of the Antikythera Mechanism in its most authentic form to date, with the intention of establishing the nature of the tools, techniques, and technology used to create it.” I find it captivating to watch Chris hand-crafting cogs (gears) and machine screws and… well, everything really.
Another area in this channel where you can lose large chunks of your life is titled “Antikythera Fragments,” which covers a lot of the speculation and guesswork that is going into all of this. Once again, there are some riveting discussions on tools and techniques, such as this video in which Chris discusses alternative approaches that might be used to mark out the teeth on the gears.
I don’t know about you, but I find all of this to be absolutely riveting. I also regard it as critical information for any engineer who thinks there’s even the remotest possibility of falling through a timeslip and finding themselves having to rely on their ability to shine in the dim and distant past. Not that I’m saying I believe this to be a real possibility, you understand, but — if you’ll excuse me — there are a couple more of Chris’s videos I’d like to re-watch before heading for home this evening.