When time began

When I was helping to develop MIS curriculum at Bethel College in Mishawaka 20 years ago, I came across a device called the Antikythera machine. It was said to be interesting because society was preparing to transition from an economy where productivity is based upon how many people can be enslaved and forced to work for free, to one that could use machines to leverage production without the need to enslave more people. Critical to this development was the concept of the escapement movement, which was the key to allowing a gear to turn at slow, controllable, intervals with power supplied by a spring. Without an escapement movement, the gear simply turns as fast as possible until the spring is unwound. With an escapement movement (and pendulum) the gear turns one tooth at a time with the time interval controlled by the period of the pendulum.

In the first century AD a Greek device was uncovered that was hypothesized to be the first application of an escapement movement. It was a complex thing full of gears, and no one really could prove exactly what it did — maybe it was to navigate by the stars, one hypothesized, as it was carried on ships.

Recent work has refined these guesses, and a working model of the device has been constructed using gears in lego sets. Network World reports:

Since its discovery in 1902, the Antikythera Mechanism — with its intricate and baffling system of about 30 geared wheels — has been a fascinating enigma. In 2006, a major new research project used some of the most advanced technology of the 21st century A.D. to decipher the most advanced technology of the 1st century B.C. (A slideshow shows how it was done: Decoding the 2,000-year-old Antikythera Mechanism)

The 2006 findings, aided by advanced imaging software and 3-D X-ray computed tomography, confirmed some previous insights by researcher Michael Wright and expanded on them. The mechanism, originally roughly the size of a largish shoebox, is revealed as a sophisticated mechanical calculator that displayed a variety of astronomical events and periods, including the sun and moon moving through the zodiac, accurately predicted solar eclipses, and apparently displayed movements of the known planets.

All in all, fascinating. And it provides a bit more insight into the business technology path that eventually lead from mechanical clocks which allowed gears to turn only so far each cycle to electronic clock circuits which allow buffers and flip flops to store and retrieve data.

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