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in the Footsteps of Giants – after the Antikythera Mechanism

February 8, 2010

Is the Antikythera mechanism the first computer? Certainly it is the most complex device for which evidence exists until the Middle Ages.

x-ray image gears

x-ray - The Antikythera Mechanism

Here’s a link to the science journal Nature‘s video-archive about this intricate collection of gears found in a Roman shipwreck chock-a-block with Greek treasures.

Nature video-archive – The Antikythera Mechanism

Jo Marchant has devoted a website to it – Decoding the Heavens, and includes an operational reconstruction.

Gadget lab, the übergeeks from Wired, have also reconstructed it here.

The Nicholson Museum of Sydney University has a working copy, and gives public lectures on this and other objects in its collection.  Sessions are advertised on the Nicholson’s Facebook Page.

Mechanical clock

Re-creation of Giovanni di Dondi's clock (original 1364)

Giovanni di Dondi is otherwise hailed as the originator of clockwork: the plans for the Dondi Clock, built and destroyed in 1364, were recently discovered in  a 1461 manuscript at Oxford University.

Originally, the oldest clocks were thought to be the ones at Salisbury  and Wells Cathedrals, which date from 1386. Daniel Mitsui’s website  The Lion and the Cardinal has a comprehensive image library of extraordinary medieval clocks from all over Europe.  The culmination of the craft is clear in Hampton Court’s 1528 example:

Hampton court clockface

Hampton Court Clock-face (from 1528)

Automatons were associated with the great cathedral clocks to regulate the day and as allusions to deus ex machina (God from the machine), striking awe and wonder into the lowly heart of the peasant.  No doubt they became ‘must-see’ additions on the pilgrim’s itinerary.

Medieval mechanical human  figures that struck the hours are referred to as Jacks, or Jack-o’-the-clock, from Jean Jaquemarts, the original Dijon creator; hence Well’s Cathedral has Jack Blandifer, and Suffolk has Jack-the-Smiter.

Jack Blandifer automata

Jack Blandifer, Wells Cathedral

Neil Gaiman’s story The Graveyard Book, recalls the Jack mythologies.

Jack‘ in medieval parlance is generally synonymous with ‘knave‘ (and still resides in the deck of cards), or implies a male servant – ‘an impudent fellow’:

“Since every Jack became a gentleman

There’s many a gentle person made a Jack” (Richard 111, 1.3)

See The Online Dictionary for all the inferences of ‘Jack’.

In the antipodes, however, clockwork automaton  celebrates, in glorious Victorian Gothic Revival, the two Irish giants who presaged the end of the world – a comment by English intellectuals marooned in the colony?  Gog and Magog ring in the hours in the Royal Arcade in Melbourne, and come second in my childhood joys to the Fred Asmussen’s Myer Christmas Window  Display.

Gog automata

Gog, Royal Arcade Melbourne

Magog, Royal Arcade Melbourne

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