Many believe early man saw the universe as a living thing: each flash of lightning, every star in the sky, the rain that fell, the ground beneath their feet – everything around them was part of some huge, living, breathing creature.
But then all that changed. The Greeks, along with their intellectual ancestors, looked at the world and while they saw life they also began to see a mechanism to it all, a precise and ordered regularity.
The Antikythera Device
Alhough we know the ancient Greeks were extremely intelligent, just how smart was hinted at in 1901 – and then confirmed many years later. At first the hunk of rusted iron pulled from the sea near the Greek island of Antikythera was just a curiosity, a bit of archeological weirdness. It was only decades and decades later that modern science was finally able to pry apart the secrets of ancient science. Very, very ancient science.
The Antikythera Mechanism, as it’s called, is a meticulous and precise assembly of 72 gears – a simply staggering piece of craftsmanship. What’s even more astounding is that scientists think the device was an astronomical calculator: an elaborate, incredibly accurate computer that was built in 150 to 100 BC (more info, also see the mechanism in action).
Other Antikythera Mechanism reconstruction projects and working models:
All the instructions for the mechanism are written in Greek; one case when you can say "this manual is all Greek to me" and be entirely correct. Surprising details about this artefact are still being uncovered - for example, the various dials on the back of the Antikythera Mechanism include one dedicated to the four-year Olympiad Cycle of athletic games in ancient Greece!
What’s even more intriguing -- as well as exciting – isn’t the device itself but the broad hint it sends at how technologically advanced the ancient engineers were. The device is certainly miraculous but it was also a common working machine; not a rarity but instead what could be something that navigators used every day. Who knows what other mechanisms and devices have yet to be found?
Beautiful Astronomical Clock in Prague
A few hundred years later the universe was still a mechanical place but the engineering that went into creating machines to predict and understand it became even more complicated and elaborate. Clocks got a developmental shot in the arm because they – when used with star charts and sextants – were essential navigation tools. It wasn’t long before clock mechanisms were used to track not just the hours, minutes and seconds of commerce and shipping but also the stars and planets in the sky.
One of the more incredible astronomical clocks is the legendary Prague Astronomical Clock. To say that it’s elaborate would be a ridiculous understatement. The clock is an insanely complicated instrument created not only to tell the time but also track the movements of the stars and planets – at least the ones they knew about in the 1400s when the clock was built. It's easy to think that making something as complicated as the Prague clock was a one time, supremely rare thing.
Although the clock wasn’t a common working gizmo like the Antikythera device, it also used technology and craftsmanship that existed in many other Medieval cities – and even, a century or so later, insanely miniaturized to the point where, if you were rich, you could carry what was basically a tiny version in your pocket. Read this article about the grim fate of the clockmaster... which is only a tale, but an atmospheric one at that.
While complicated, one of the greatest things about the Prague clock is that it isn’t just a working clock; it almost deserves to be called a monumental kinetic sculpture. It ticks and tocks and ticks and tocks in ways, to quote from the Bible, that are “a wonder to behold.” So wondrous, in fact, that you can find computer models online demonstrating just how elegant and beautiful the mechanism is – which says a lot that we use 21st century technology to appreciate the skill of a 1400s clockmaster.
Unfortunately, the growing ubiquity of these clocks’ technology spelled their doom. As more and more people could afford to carry watches there was less and less of a need for a huge, central and, naturally, elaborate town clock. It simply didn’t make financial sense to keep building them, a sign that humanity's evolving view of the world was mechanical: ticks and tocks as well as dollars and sense.
What’s ironic is that with the dawn of the 21st century, in a world ruled by the careful calculations of software, humans are starting to understand, and even plan to use, the uncertainty of a quantum universe: an existence where things are never quite what they seem and chaos is part of How Everything Works.
Still, the incredible Antikythera device, the Prague and Wells Cathedral clocks, are beautiful in their antique mechanisms – as well as evoking a time when the world was as precise and orderly as the back-and-forth swing of a pendulum.
Astronomical Clock at Hampton Court Palace, London, UK (1540):
Zimmertoren Astronomical Clock on Zimmer Tower in Lier, Belgium (left) and Strasbourg's Cathedral Astronomical Clock:
Lund's Cathedral Astronomical Clock, 1424:
Lyon's Cathedral Astronomical Clock:
Beauvais Cathedral has the St. Pierre Giant Astronomical Clock, made by Auguste-Lucien Verité in 1865-8. It contains 90,000 pieces, 68 statutes and 52 dials:
Germany's Munster Cathedral Astronomical Clock, 1540