The ancient Greek computational mechanism

by on July 30, 2008 at 2:18 pm in Web/Tech | Permalink

We now know a little more:

After a closer examination of the Antikythera Mechanism, a surviving marvel of ancient Greek technology, scientists have found that the device not only predicted solar eclipses but also organized the calendar in the four-year cycles of the Olympiad, forerunner of the modern Olympic Games.

The device also had a likely connection with Archimedes.  Here is the full story.

1 Speedmaster July 30, 2008 at 2:58 pm

I’ve been following this story for a while, very interesting stuff. Thanks for the link.

2 Michael F. Martin July 30, 2008 at 5:39 pm

Interesting to note that we didn’t have similar machines for measuring time again in Western Civilization until the 14th Century… right around when the Hanseatic league, Venice, and Genoa really took off.

3 Ironman July 30, 2008 at 6:07 pm

For more background information on the Antikythera Mechanism, which was recovered from a Bronze Age shipwreck roughly 100 years ago, see here.

Speaking of Michael F. Martin’s remarks on manufacturing and commerce, time is even more important today than in Ford’s era. Today’s fully networked just-in-time inventory control systems combined with computer-driven, automated production technology has a great deal to do with the phenomenal productivity of today’s manufacturing-intensive industries. The same non-glamorous industries that are leading U.S. economic performance right now.

4 James A. Donald July 30, 2008 at 7:09 pm

The mechanism was part of a shipload of loot – the Romans looted the makers, and therefore probably massacred or enslaved the makers. Which explains why the mechanism, and the knowledge and skills to make it, disappeared from history. Where the Romans conquered, progress stopped.

5 Lee A. Arnold July 30, 2008 at 8:47 pm

Michael F. Martin, wouldn’t synchronization in time cause reductions in other sorts of transaction costs, since for example, backlogs and bottlenecks require additional management communication? If so, Coase’s more general viewpoint on institutions (here, “central timekeeping”) still applies.

6 Michael F. Martin July 30, 2008 at 10:54 pm

@Lee A. Arnold

I need to go back and take a closer look at Coase’s work. Do you have a particular paper in mind?

7 Cyrus July 30, 2008 at 11:22 pm


While the Romans certainly didn’t borrow ALL of their accomplishments from subject peoples, I have trouble thinking of any signficant Roman innovations after the early first century. If I look at my lists of classical scientists, the Greeks of the second century BC represent the peak. There’s a small resurgence in Alexandria in the second century AD, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that classical learning died, like Archimedes, on the point of the Roman sword.

8 Michael F. Martin July 31, 2008 at 12:44 am

This all got me curious about a favorite historical anachronism of mine — Ptolemaic Egypt. I’m grateful to have now learned that Archimedes may have spent time in Ptolemaic era Alexandria. Their sense of time have derived from Archimedes. For the uninitiated, Ptolemaic era Egypt was the scene for the first accurate estimate of the circumference of the (round) earth, and also the scene for the execution of contracts of sale for land, complete with references to a recording office.

“I have no claim at all against you in respect of them [the
land]. No person at all nor I myself will be able to exercise
authority over them except you from this day onwards. As for anyone
who shall proceed against you on account of them in my name or in the
name of anyone at all, I shall cause him to be far from you. And I
shall clear it for you from anything at all at any time. To you
belongs their documents, their titles in any place in which they are:
every document which has been drawn up regarding them and every
document by virtue of which I am entitled to in respect of them, they
belong to you and the rights conferred by them. To you belongs that by
virtue of which I am entitled in respect of them. The oath or the
proof which will be imposed upon you in the courthouse in respect of
the rights conferred by the aforementioned document which I have drawn
up for you, to cause me to swear it, I will swear it ”

from a demotic script dating to 208 B.C.

Check out the work done by on this if you’re interested. Many of the MSS are in Berlin’s papyrusammlung, but only a few were on display while I was there in 2006.

9 Lee A. Arnold July 31, 2008 at 2:44 am

Michael Martin, “The nature of the firm,” 1937. But it’s the general idea of an “institution” that his paper leads to: any instituted idea that economizes transformations or transactions, thereby increasing throughput. So the property and contract law that makes the market economy viable is also an institution. Of course the firm is an institution, where there are many ways to reduce transformation and transaction costs, although Coase may have misinterpreted the specifics at one plant. As Ironman points out, the process is continuous, even until older considerations have been made obsolete, such as through technological change affecting production or organization.

10 Lee A. Arnold July 31, 2008 at 1:05 pm

Michael, I’m sorry, I did not mean to mislead you: Coase does not mention timekeeping. I extrapolated from that article. The basic insight is to ask when and where transactions (or transformations) are handled better than the market can do it. His answer came in pursuit of the reason for the existence of the firm. His next famous article on “Social cost” brought into view the fact that transaction costs are always positive and occur almost everywhere (and as Blaug points out, the Coase Theorem is in this sense an impossibility theorem, and a variation on why the Invisible Hand Theorem never holds.) The next question then — really the important question for all of us — is what is the nature of cost reductions. There are only four fields in which the reductions can occur: space, time, transference of mass (a.k.a. energy,) and grammar of thought (such as in linguistic or mathematical invention — which upon reflection usually saves space, time, or energy.) Many cost reductions are not quantifiable, and a larger number of them are not monetized. “Liberty,” for example, whatever its other virtues, is also a cost-saving institution. My initial reaction was to your phrase “not, as Coase would have it,” because synchronization is a technique that falls under his general rubric. I rather think he sees it clearly. He has written that he believes that the basic insight will rewrite economics.

11 Lee A. Arnold July 31, 2008 at 11:47 pm

Nature magazine just put up a video about the Antikythera mechanism with 3-d x-rays and computer animations:

12 機票 December 8, 2008 at 10:16 pm


13 花蓮包車 February 3, 2009 at 11:03 am

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