Sunday, May 3, 2009


There is a review of the book Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer–and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets by Jo Marchant over at The book is about the Antikythera mechanism, a set of gears that intrigued and mystified researchers for the past century. We now know that it
"allowed the successful prediction of solar, lunar, planetary, and eclipse cycles across many decades. It was meant for an educated amateur and came with extensive inscribed instructions on its metal parts. It is the ancient ancestor (in a sense) of the elaborate clocks that were to sweep through western Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Except that it was likely built around 100 BC, after what was clearly a long period of earlier experimentation and technical wizardry."
We often think of technological progress as one way. Knowledge accumulates and never is forgotten. The story of this mechanism dramatically illustrates that technological knowledge can be lost. It also raises questions as to why the ancient world did not have an industrial revolution. One answer is that they never got several key inventions that were necessary (zero, accounting systems, lenses). Another is that they never got the right set of political and economic institutions (intellectual property rights for one).

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