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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


Best ever comedy

February 5, 2010

Now, if you’re sensitive about religion and the devil, STOP RIGHT NOW,  or you’ll have only yourself to blame …

I purchased this routine on cassette three times – always borrowed and never returned.  This is only a snippet of a much longer piece that spares no one, not even the Mormons, “whom God acknowledges ‘put in a lot of good work …'”  Enjoy!

Paper Cut

February 5, 2010
Half Way Through, a paper figure rising from A4 paper

Half Way Through, by Peter Callesen

The Postmodernist silhouette? Lots more intriguing and unbelievably intricate works of art at Peter Callesan’s website.

Beethoven in profile, agd 16

Beethoven's Silhouette, aged 16

The Cabinet of Curiosities

February 4, 2010

The-French-Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger, oil and tempura on panel, 1533

The French Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger 1533 (National Gallery London)

What is a Cabinet of Curiosities?  Also known as Wunderkammern (wonder cabinets), they are amateur collections of the exotic, odd, gruesome and plain surprising, originally collated by the 17th century Gentlemen of Wealth, Leisure and Inquiring Mind.

The Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University owes its first collection to the vast wunderkammer (singular) of John Tradescant, and similarly, the  Kunstkamera of Russia (est 1719) was built to house Peter the Great’s bizarre curios.

More about Peter the Great and his collection.

Take a Virtual Tour of the Ashmolean.

Want to engage in a fraught discussion about the symbolism (perspective and the anamorphic skull, or the broken lute string) in this painting? Start here.

A Cabinet of Curiosity also exists in Terry Pratchett”s discworld.

And BBC4 produced a brilliant radio series, The Museum of Curiosity, with John Lloyd and Bill Bailey.