The Antikythera mechanism is the oldest known analog/mechanical computer. This artifact is a compact form of orrery that tracked the positions of the sun, moon, and other celestial bodies. It used differential gears, a technology that was lost sometime thereafter and not re-invented again until the 17th Century. 30 gears (of either 37 or 72 originally) have survived, and only a partial reconstruction has been possible, so not everything it tracked is currently known. Partial instructions carved on the inside surface have survived, and have aided reconstruction efforts.
This is a list of at least some things it could calculate and track:
- The 4-year cycle of the Olympic Games. The Olympics were the regular event that provided as much standardization as there ever was to the various calendars of the old Greek city-states.
- Tracks the movement of the planets. Note that the ancients didn't know all the same planets we do. The Greek "Planetos" meant "wanderers", and they included amongst their numbers the Moon and the Sun, plus Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. The movements of the planets were important for various religious observances.
- Predicts Solar and Lunar eclispes, which were bad omens in the ancient world. It incorporates and tracks the Saros cycle known to modern science. The Saros cycle is 18 years, 11 days and eight hours in length.
- Reconciles lunar months and solar years via the Metonic cycle (a 19-year cycle) so you can convert between dates in lunar- and solar- calendars. NASA uses this cycle today to schedule launch windows.
- Tracks the progression of the zodiac, and might be useful for Astrology.
- Denotes the cycles of the moon, useful for scheduling night-time activities.
- It may have performed additional functions similar to an astrolabe.
Conventional scientific and historical understanding puts the device a thousand years ahead of it's time, comparable in complexity at least to clocks built in the 18th Century. The device, however, has been dated to between 150 BC and 100 BC. It may therefore qualify as an Out Of Place Artifact.
Creation and Origin
Researchers disagree about it's origin. It may have been manufactured at Rhodes, Syracuse or Corinth, by Hipparchus, Posidonius, Archimedes or even some unknown lost genius. Cicero described either it or another machine of similar purpose having been made by Posidonius, as well as a much larger but similar planetarium called the Sphere of Archimedes.
Discovery & Current Location
The mechanism was found in 1901, in a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera, near Crete. It was total mystery at that point, and took years of research to figure out what the parts represented.
The mechanism is currently kept in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Reconstructions are on display there, and at the American Computer Museum in Bozeman, Montana and the Children's Museum of Manhattan in New York.
It is extensively studied by the multi-national Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, which uses high-resolution X-ray tomography to reveal details (including large amounts of instructional text inside it) that were otherwise unavailable.
A LEGO fan built a replica out of plastic bricks and gears, and cranked it forward to demonstrate that the mechanism was accurate enough to predict the Solar eclipse of April 8, 2024 more than 2,000 years after the original mechanism's creation.
Game and Story Use
- The missing gears are not lost, they are merely obfuscated / kept in a secret collection.
- A secret society could use the gears as badges or keys.
- An NPC Time Abyss may be with-holding a critical component of the machine. But why?
- The mechanism could be (or at least be based upon) technology possessed by Ancient Astronauts.
- Wired to the Bagdhad Battery and cranked, it will cause the Crystal Skulls to come alive and do whatever it is they were built to do. Of course, this will only work under the empowering blanket of Pyramid Power. The quest is off to gather the OOPAs to save (or destroy, or conquer, or illuminate) the world!
- Or it could be an astrogation] or navigation device.
- If reassembled, the Antikythera Mechanism may track the stars for occult, rather than scientific, purposes.
- It will tell you when The Stars Are Right for dread Cthulhu to awaken.
- It could have awesome powers in it's own right.
- It can stop the sun in it's tracks, and was used at the Battle of Jericho.
- It can provide, enforce, or literalize astrological predictions.
- If it had only made it to Caesar's triumphal parade, he would have been able to predict and avoid the machinations of the senate. "Beware the… *crank, crank* …Ides of March!"
- It may even be the first Time Machine.
- In an alternate history campaign, the ancient greeks may have been more advanced. The mechanism is the ancient world's equivalent of the laptop computer.
- Or is used by the Ionian Aeronautics and Space Administration to calculate launch windows for their Daedalus-class steam-powered rockets built by Archytas or Heron of Alexandria
- The campaign is set in the Greek Dark Age (we're fudging the dates for the sake of a cool story), with an After The End feel. The PCs are trying to transport the mechanism to the last remnant of a faded civilization - it contains the knowledge that will restore the glory of Troy. Dark forces are aligned against them, hoping to capture or destroy the device. Can the PCs succeed, or is the mechanism fated to sink beneath the waves just off Antikythera?
- An espionage game with strands of supernatural or sci-fi elements could use this as MacGuffin.
- You can draw some inspiration from TV. It would fit in with all the weird Rimbaldi devices in Alias (TV Series), and was actually mentioned in a sub-plot in the FlashForward TV show.
- A game set in 1901, 1978 or 2005 could visit the wreckage and attempt to bolster or interfere with efforts to find the missing gears.
- Many of the above concepts could be transferred to the LEGO version for a funny spin on the concept.
- The headlines could read: "Man builds with LEGOs, causes sun to freeze in tracks."
- For a setting like Stross' Laundryverse - in which magic is based on complex mathematics, this device could be a simple mechanical computer for working appropriate formulae (Doh-na curves in the Laundryverse's case), perhaps with the astrological correspondences as a sort of Graphic User Interface (so the shape of the curves is plotted by the movements of the celestial bodies relative to one another).
- This would also suggest someone in Ancient Greece having developed a proto-Dee/Turing Theorem. Presumably someone else … up to and including BLUE HADES … took exception to that.