The Antikythera Mechanism

  • Innovation and Technology

Every holiday season, there is some spectacular new toy that pollinates TV news and mailbox catalogs with its overwhelming must-haveness. We’ve seen our share of Furbys and Tickle-Me-Elmos, and we’ll never forget SIMON either.

But some toys are so good as to be eternal. So it is with LEGO™, which has now remained at the top of holiday gift lists for generations. As a toy, it is almost miraculous, allowing kids of any age to devise toys, even whole worlds of their own imagination. After all the boxes are unwrapped and long after the stuffed animals are tucked away, busy hands will still be building.

And it turns out those same blocks, gears and axles that come together as a gravity-defying robocraft are also brilliant for prototyping and modeling.

So imagine you find an ancient device at the bottom of the ocean, a complex calculator mechanism with intricate bronze gears and dials that date back to 200 B.C. In 1901, divers found just such a machine on the sea floor off the coast of Crete. Scientists have been puzzling over the Antikythera Mechanism ever since.

Like something out of a Dan Brown novel, the device pre-dates comparable technology by a mind-blowing 1,000 years. It accurately predicts lunar and solar eclipses, among other astronomical activity. In fact, as it turns out the Antikythera Mechanism is probably the first-ever analog computer, and that’s pretty cool.

What might be cooler is that in 2010, a team at Digital Science used LEGO™ to build a fully functional replica of the device in the lab. I’m sure they raided everyone’s parts buckets in the process.

The team not only demonstrates the viability of the mechanism, they also show off the gear combinations required to achieve all the mathematical components of the calculation. Pretty impressive indeed.

So this holiday, after you’re done building castles and spaceships, maybe take a crack at a mechanical computer. Make things.