Ancient Engineers

by John Derbyshire

Here is an exceptionally cool YouTube clip: the Antikythera mechanism built with Lego.

Some background here: The Hellenistic world (i.e. the Greek-speaking West after Alexander) was an extraordinary technological high point. Hero of Alexandria is usually reckoned the star performer: he built a primitive steam engine in the first century A.D. Equally astonishing feats of engineering were accomplished by people whose names we don’t know: the Antikythera mechanism for instance.

In 1900 divers found an ancient wreck near the Greek island of Antikythera. The wreck dated from around 100 B.C. Among the goodies on board was a complicated mechanism, much corroded of course. It turned out to be a mechanical calculator with 30-odd gear wheels made to high precision and an instruction manual inscribed on attached plates. The purpose of the thing was astronomical — to model the movements of heavenly bodies so that dates for eclipses and calendar-based ceremonies could be computed in advance.

Much research and ingenuity has gone into recreating the Anikythera mechanism. Michael Wright, a leading expert on the thing, shows off a model here. Well, now we have it in Lego, too. The Lego reconstruction seems to be less faithful than Wright’s, based on an older understanding Wright claims to have discredited, but that’s inside baseball. This is a very cool model.