Countdown to the Olympics


Nowadays we have fancy clocks that countdown to the Olympics, like this

Beijing clock, cc by topgold

Beijing clock; posted under creative commons license by topgold

or this

Vancouver clock by Makaristos

Vancouver clock by Makaristos

And these are nice and all, but they’re not exactly portable. For that, you need to go back 2100 years. In 1901, spongedivers found an ancient shipwreck near southern Greece. It had all sorts of stuff with it, including a bronze clock that was somewhat beat up but, in its heyday, looked something like this:

Olympic Digital Camera; creative commons copyright by Marsyas

Olympic Digital Camera; creative commons copyright by Marsyas

The clock was named the Antikythera Mechanism, in honor of the island Antikythera near where the ship sunk, and it got its very own website here. For a long time no one knew exactly how it worked or what it measured. But then in 2005 Britain sent a 3-dimensional (tomography) x-ray machine down to Athens, where the pieces of the Antikythera Mechanism are on display, and they found out a couple things. First, it used gears, well before the Swiss watchmakers. Second, it kept track of the Olympic games. That’s particularly interesting because, with the games occurring every 4 years, a clock wasn’t strictly necessary. But as the folk of Beijing and Vancouver know, that doesn’t mean it’s not special.

The news articles that talk about this clock (e.g. here and here) also draw a connection to Archimedes. Different parts of Greece used different names for the months, and the names used on this clock were used in Syracuse, where Archimedes had lived 100 years earlier. (They were also used in other cities, but that’s not part of this story.) So Alexander Jones (from the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University) said:

We know Archimedes did mechanical astronomy here 100 years earlier and this could be from his home city, it could have been inspired by his work, or it could have been a local tradition that he started.

That’s a lot of “could”s. Nonetheless, whether or not Archimedes had anything to do with the clock or not, it’s still a pretty neat object.

Thanks to Pam for bringing my attention to this story!

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One Response to “Countdown to the Olympics”

  1. ibrahim binshahbal Says:

    nice article.

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