From the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Terracotta Army, ancient artifacts have long fascinated the modern world. However, the importance of some discoveries is not always immediately understood. This was the case in 1901 when sponge divers retrieved a lump of corroded bronze from a shipwreck at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea near the Greek island of Antikythera. Little did the divers know they had found the oldest known analog computer in the world, an astonishing device that once simulated the motions of the stars and planets as they were understood by ancient Greek astronomers. Its remains now consist of 82 fragments, many of them containing gears and plates engraved with Greek words, that scientists and scholars have pieced back together through painstaking inspection and deduction, aided by radiographic tools and surface imaging. More than a century after its discovery, many of the secrets locked in this mysterious device can now be revealed.
In addition to chronicling the unlikely discovery of the Antikythera Mechanism, author Alexander Jones takes readers through a discussion of how the device worked, how and for what purpose it was created, and why it was on a ship that wrecked off the Greek coast around 60 BC. What the Mechanism has uncovered about Greco-Roman astronomy and scientific technology, and their place in Greek society, is truly amazing. The mechanical know-how that it embodied was more advanced than anything the Greeks were previously thought capable of, but the most recent research has revealed that its displays were designed so that an educated layman could understand the behavior of astronomical phenomena, and how intertwined they were with one's natural and social environment. It was at once a masterpiece of machinery as well as one of the first portable teaching devices. Written by a world-renowned expert on the Mechanism, A Portable Cosmos will fascinate all readers interested in ancient history, archaeology, and the history of science.
Jones, professor of the history of exact sciences in antiquity at NYU, exhaustively analyzes the famed Antikythera mechanism, a mysterious bronze astronomical device of ancient Greek origins that many modern commentators thought exceeded the technological capabilities of its time. After recounting how it was found in 1901, Jones discusses the investigations and initial theories about the mechanism's nature and origins. With this foundation set, he delves into its historical context, addressing culture, religion, astronomy, technology, and more. These chapters, which make up the book's bulk, provide a surprisingly vivid picture of Mediterranean and Mesopotamian cultures at the time of the mechanism's likely creation, around 200 B.C.E., and dispel the myth that the mechanism was somehow ahead of its time by explaining the apparent reasons for its multiple functions, which include a zodiac scale, an Egyptian calendar scale, a Moon phase display, and means to track planetary motion. Moreover, Jones includes painstaking technical descriptions and diagrams of the materials, construction, and probable inner workings of the mechanism, making clear that the scientific knowledge and craftsmanship of the day was sufficient for its design and manufacture. Though Jones's dense and straightforward prose makes this closer to a textbook than a popular science book, his comprehensive look at the Antikythera mechanism and its context will suit readers interested in the mechanism or the history of science in general. Illus.