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How a lump of bronze radically rewrote history of technolgy

The antikythera mechanism

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"

George Santayana

The Spanish-American philosopher's words are commonly interpreted as "those who do not learn from history have to repeat it."

To learn from history requires knowledge of it. Maybe that's why I like going to museums with ancient artifacts. Or perhaps it's just because I like looking at old sculptures and comparing how lives have changed since then. Honestly, I could not manually turn grain into wheat every day.

Every museum visit ends up teaching me something new. Sometimes, it triggers me to reflect on the impermanence of things, and sometimes, I find a new artist whose works I can obsess over.

My latest museum trip led me to the Archeological Museum in Athens, Greece. After all, ancient Greece exudes a glamorous image to this day, and philosophical ideas from the likes of Sokrates are on every Classic's students' curriculum.

Walking the streets of Athens, though, in some corners, you do wonder where that type of "early starter" advantage went. There are a lot of not well-paved pathways, countless homeless, and trash on the streets. Oh, and there are cats everywhere (this is a plus). Needless to say, the city also features a very vibrant music and food scene, countless high-end boutiques, and a very politically active citizenry.

I didn't find answers to why the glamour of Ancient Greece didn't offer some benefit beyond tourism to this day - yet I did find something even more fascinating.

A lump of bronze

It is not so impressive, right? (Src)

Queue the wowow sound effect.

Statues and gravestones took up the most space in the museum. Yet, what remains forever in memory is a lump of bronze that changed how we thought about the history of technology forever.

When do you think that intricate gearwheels have first been employed?

We're talking precision gears with spikes in the mm range.

What immediately comes to mind are clocks and watches, which I'd have estimated somewhere closer to the Middle Ages than any time before Jesus was born.

Yet this lump of bronze proved once and for all that Ancient Greece was ahead in more than just how to run a city-state and how to entertain the masses without killing each other (Olympics).

Their technology was more advanced than anyone would expect from that time.

This is the story of the Antikythera mechanism.

As so often in archeology (or so I imagine it to be), first impressions don't matter much.

Let's dive in

Literally... dive in 🌊

Because this lump of bronze was found in 1901 by Captian Dimitrios Kontos and his crew of sponge divers among what was left from an ancient shipwreck. The only reason they took any interest in the piece was that its green color suggested it was bronze, which is valuable to this day.

However, for two years, the artifact was friend-zoned by researchers, waiting patiently for the time that scientists would come to sense and realize that all the statues, coins, and vases from that shipwreck are nothing compared to the secret this ugly duckling of a finding holds.

Its faith changed after a local politician visited the museum and realized that there was a system of cogs and faint writing engraved on the fragments. He told his archeologist cousin Valerios about it, who'd be the first to commit to unraveling the secrets of the lump.

Is it a clock?

After closer inspection, he hypothesized that the mechanism was a type of astronomy-based clock. But, as so often, haters gonna hate, and the majority of fellow scientists didn't want to believe his hypothesis because such intricate gears had only been found 1,300 years later.

"Too complex to be from before Christ," so their argument went. And without advanced imaging technology, there was no way to look deeper inside this corroded piece of wood and metal.

The next one to become interested in the piece was the German philologist Albert Rhem, whose notes contained extraordinary ideas. He managed to read part of the inscriptions and identified key astronomical cycles: 76-year cycles of the moon and the 223-month eclipse cycle.

Gears from the Greek?

By then, the mechanism had accumulated so much interest that one guy dedicated an entire book to it, Gears from the Greeks. Prince was one of the first to employ X-ray images to find what's inside of the mechanism.

Fun fact: HP had to send an entire X-ray machine there due to a policy that artifacts could not be removed from the museum. The Greeks probably learned from seeing what the British did whenever they "visited" a place with historically significant artifacts.

Looking inside, they realized that the moon cycle that Rhem had found could be calculated using the gearing inside.

So, this was more than just a clock. It turned out to be a calculating device.

Unfortunately, though, Price didn't help his cause when he added that the most sensible explanation for finding such an advanced mechanism was that aliens had left it behind.

Way to ruin your life work, Mr Prince.

Fast forward another few decades to drastically improved imaging technology, and finally, scientists uncovered the intricate details inside of the mechanism, giving them full confidence to say:

It's the world's oldest computer

Sure, not the computer you're probably reading this on. But if you view a computer as a device where you input data to receive results for your calculations, it's a fitting term.

To put this into perspective, finding such an advanced device under the sea is the equivalent of finding an airplane inside of a Viking wreck (In that case, it's definitely aliens, tho) or a nuclear bomb in the pyramids, as Price put it.

Over the following years, scientists managed to read more and more of the inscriptions, allowing them to build accurate models of the mechanism in its full bloom.

Inside the mechanism, a set of gears would move and indicate the position of the sun, moon, earth, and other planets on the front.

The model built by an UCL research team (Src)

It took us more than 100 years to go from discovery to an accurate model of the mechanism. It was only in 2021 that the UCL research team, the latest to work on the mechanism, finished the most precise model of it.

‘Our work reveals the Antikythera Mechanism as a beautiful conception, translated by superb engineering into a device of genius. It challenges all our preconceptions about the technological capabilities of the ancient Greeks.’

UCL team in Nature

Why is this a big deal?

First, it's mind-blowing that a calculation device allowed Greek astronomers to mechanize their theories. This discovery changed the history of technology. The ancient Greeks had achieved a level of sophistication with this that one didn't deem possible before the appearance of medieval clockwork.

It is the first known device that mechanized the predictions of scientific theories and it could have automated many of the calculations needed for its own design - the first steps to the mechanization of mathematics and science.

UCL team in Nature

Still, questions remain, such as who used the mechanism and why haven't we found more of them. It might just be a question of more sponge divers and politicians with archeology cousins (Serendipity at its finest 😼 ).

The craziest thing to me is that they had such advanced tech, which then just disappeared.

What can we learn from this?

I don't think we learn much from history in crypto. We're often too distracted rumoring about ETFs coming and not coming or pumping the next memecoin instead of looking back and understanding the past.

I know that's generalizing a little since I'm aware of individuals who are very well-versed in history and philosophy.

Plus, we have dory brains on CT, especially. (Src)

If this tale shows anything, it's that great tech doesn't mean your civilization will persist. Technology, too, goes through boom and bust cycles. It's not quite clear why we've not found similar mechanisms in the later years. There might have been a loss of knowledge, resource limitations and cultural socio-political factors that played a role.

Compared to today, ancient cultures were less connected, so technological knowledge was further limited in its reach. Of course, another possibility is also that all the other mechanisms decayed or are yet to be found.

To end this on a bit of a personal note, I think in crypto as well, we shouldn't be driven by the ephemeral callings of ETFs but get back to our North Star.

It's quite telling that Vitalik felt compelled to put out a blog post reminding us all of the initial cypherpunk values this space should uphold. Anyone going deeper into infrastructure will quickly find how many smokes and mirrors still exist. Btw, If you want to avoid depressing censorship conversations, don't ask me about MEV boost.

Take RPC providers.

I don't blame projects relying on centralized service providers, nor do I blame them for offering the service. It's a profitable business, so why shouldn't they?

But I do believe we can do better than that.

And we should.

Otherwise, we might risk our tech encountering the faith of the mechanism.

God beware if someone claims that blockchain was an invention of aliens in 2000 years👽

And if you want a CTA, go to the museum and read what it says about the things instead of just taking Instagram pictures to create the illusion of being an avid museum-goer.

It's 100x more attractive if someone can tell me about the things they've seen in museums and not just show me pictures with no context. This is life advice! Make of it what you want.

If you want to dive deeper into this, here are some of the sources I used:

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#ancient greece#archeology#technology
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