Centuries before people thought it would be cool to have a calculator on your wrist, the Ancient Greeks gave some serious thought to the way gears and counterweights could be made to mark the passage of time. And they weren’t just interested in when they were going to have lunch. These guys wanted to know everything there was to know about the universe.
They wanted to see how the observations they made using their little window of Grecian night sky could calculate the wanderings – and verify the existence – of the gleaming bodies up above. Like a tooth and a cog, Grecian astronomy was inexorably linked with Grecian mathematics. If the maths worked, the planet turned up where the astronomer predicted.
The Antikythera took those calculations and made them real. Wound up, the mechanism was a living, ticking model of ancient wisdom in miniature, endlessly accurate, with monthly, four and a half yearly, even 78-yearly wheels turning in perfect unison. A mechanism widely credited with being the first computer, delicately crafted from 30-plus mechanical bronze gears and named after the shipwreck in which it was discovered, this legendary device is a model for horologists everywhere.
The machine was dragged out of the ocean in the first years of the 20th century. It has been exercising a powerful fascination on the minds of watchmakers ever since. Take a look at some of its functions, and it’s easy to see why.
It tracks the progress of the moon’s elliptical orbit, even correcting for the nine year wobble caused by the retrograde action of the earth’s gravity on her rotation. It marks transitions between the phases of the Greek Zodiac. It has a rotatable dial, which allows the user to accurately set the Egyptian calendar. It could simultaneously trace the position of the sun and perhaps even the planets. Its lunar gears display both the sidereal month (the orbit of the moon) and the moon phase.
No-one knows exactly who made it, but it seems likely the Antikythera was designed by Hipparchus, an astronomer from Rhodes – Ancient Greece’s version of Switzerland. The best astronomical machines were manufactured in Rhodes, but even so Hipparchus must have been pretty impressed by his own cleverness when he achieved the feat not just of accurately tracking the cycles of cosmic bodies, but also including a dial to show the Antikythera’s user when the next Olympic Games would fall.
It seems Hipparchus – if indeed it was he who designed the watch – was a real athletics nut: the Olympiad dial shows not just the dates for the big four meets at Isthmia, Olympia, Nemea and Pythia, but also some lesser-known events. That’s like marking out Charity Shield finals as well as World Cup and European Cup dates. Who knows – perhaps the Antikythera was once used by the antique world’s equivalent of Usain Bolt, preparing his training schedule for the next big meet!
This isn’t just a historical artifact. It isn’t even just a timepiece. The Antikythera is the start of humankind’s fascination with tracking the passage of the hours. Without it, there would be no Breguet Marie Antoinette, no Jaeger LeCoultre Duometre. Forget Rolex, and put your Patek Philippe back in its box. If you want the ultimate luxury watch, you need to go Ancient Greek.