11 May 2007:

John Seabrook on the Antikythera Mechanism, in The New Yorker

This corroded device is known as the Antikythera Mechanism, and it is the subject of a truly fascinating article, "Fragmentary Knowledge," in The New Yorker for May 14, 2007, by John Seabrook. Antikythera, as you might guess, is an island that lies between Cythera (Kithera) and Crete. The Mechanism, which dates from the late Second Century, BCE, was discovered by fishermen in 1900. It is only now being recognized as a miniature planetarium - a machine for demonstrating the movement of the planets and the stars. It is essentially an elaborate gear train, and that's why understanding has taken so long to develop. To put it very briefly, the Mechanism was, until recently, an "impossibility." Gears were believed to be a medieval invention. Greeks and Romans were thought to be incapable of the fine engineering required to produce, say, a planetarium.

Mr Seabrook recounts the career of a historian of science, Derek de Solla Price, who, in 1958, turned his scholarly attention to the Mechanism. He published his conclusions in 1974, fully expecting that they would clear up the prevailing underestimation of ancient technology.

But Price’s work, though widely reviewed in scholarly journals, did not change the way the history of the ancient world is written. Otto Neugebauer’s huge “A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy,” which came out the year after “Gears,” relegates the Mechanism to a single footnote. Scholars and historians may have been reluctant to rewrite the history of technology to include research that had lingering doubts attached to it. Also, Price’s book was published at the height of the popularity of “Chariots of the Gods,” a 1968 book by the Swiss writer Erich von Däniken, which argued that advanced aliens had seeded the earth with technology, and Price got associated with U.F.O.s and crop circles and other kinds of fringe thinking. Finally, as Paul Keyser told me, “Classical scholarship is very literary, and focusses on texts—such as the writing of Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, or Horace, or it is old-fashioned and historical, and focusses on leaders and battles, through the texts of Herodotus and Thucydides, or it is anthropological-archeological, and focusses on population distributions and suchlike. So when an archeological discovery about ancient technology arrives, it does not fit, because it’s new, it’s scientific, and it’s not a text. Plus, there is only one such device, and unique items tend to worry scholars and scientists, who quite reasonably prefer patterns and larger collections of data.” Whatever the reason, as one scholar, Rob Rice, noted in a paper first presented in 1993, “It is neither facile nor uninstructive to remark that the Antikythera mechanism dropped and sank—twice”—once in the sea and once in scholarship.

It would be tempting to say that the blindness that prevented scholars from taking Price's work seriously is a case of gatekeepers getting in the way of knowledge. But the belief that mechanical intricacy was beyond Hellenistic competence turns out not to be disciplinary - the consequence of a theory that resists disproof - but just plain venial in nature. Everyone knew that the Fourteenth Century CE witnessed an explosion in the manufacture of clocks in the West, but no one seems to have been interesting in looking into whether this activity might have been triggered by developments in the Islamic world. It was also overlooked that our understanding of the purposes of technology, the most important of which is to make things, might not have been shared by Greeks and Romans. Labor-saving devices were of little interest (and no prestige) in the slaveholding societies of the Ancient World. Before the Industrial Revolution - we forget - mechanical devices were intended to impress spectators. Theatres were stocked with machines - turntables and trapdoors and all sorts of flies. The Antikythera Mechanism didn't make anything, but it entertained and informed. Mr Seabrook comes out and calls it "essentially a toy." We like to think that we have put our technology to more serious purposes, even as we fidget with our iPods.

"Fragmentary Knowledge" ought to be read in conjunction with "So What Else Is New?" Steven Shapin's review of The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900, by David Edgerton. Mr Edgerton wants us to focus less on new inventions and more on how our use of older ones evolves. It also diverts our attention from maintenance. Mr Shapin writes,

We're going to need a lot more, and more powerful, technologies of conservation: not just the technologies of levees and barriers against the ocean but technologies to maintain the supply of potable water, breathable air, and arable soil; technologies to maintain as much biodiversity as we can or want to maintain,; technologies to preserve and renew our crumbling Victorian legacies of infrastructure (sewers, rail beds, roads, and bridges); technologies to stabilize and prevent the dispersal of radioactive waste.

Both pieces are healthy reminders that the way we live now is a vulnerable alternative to possibilities that we don't want to think about.

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