Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Gears from the Ancients

By Bethany Youngblood    
Byzantine sundial-cum-calendar

Gears and ancient man do not sound like two compatible subjects for a conversation. They just don't seem to mix within the mainstream view that ancient man lacked the intelligence to accomplish anything we see as modern or advanced.

But is it so out of proportion to think that the mathematical and mechanical knowledge necessary to construct something as common to us as a clock is limited only to our modern era? In reality this knowledge might simply be a rediscovered practice from our past. In other words, perhaps we forgot and have now relearned how to use this mathematical and mechanical knowledge.

Even inhabitants of the ancient world had to keep track of time. Don't you think they could have worked out ways to physically display it, like we do with our wristwatches today? Is it possible that they had actual mechanical devices to measure time, not just a sundial or an hourglass? There is fantastic evidence for just this, another marvel of ancient man's intelligence.

Translating the Universe

Mathematics is the shorthand of the universe. Mechanics is taking that language, derived from detailed observations of the world at work, and impressing it on a physical process, such as the gears working together within a clock to compute information and tell the time. Despite common belief, this impressive workmanship did not first appear with Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine in 1822, or even in earlier attempts at the idea of a computing machine by modern man.[1]
The machine shown in the pictures above and below contained thirty or more gear wheels and was used as a working, portable computer. It was found amid the wreckage of an ancient ship and hails back to the second-century BC. And yet it is being called man’s “First Computer”.[2]
The Antikythera Mechanism was built with such detail that it could predict the movements of the heavenly bodies. The tracks of the sun and moon were especially important and a prime function of the device was to foretell solar and lunar eclipses. An intricate calendar including the twelve signs of the Zodiac, the five planets the Greeks were aware of, the Greek Metonic and Callippic cycles (bases for the Greek calendar system), and possibly the four-year cycle of the Olympic games was included on the forward and backward faces of this incredible device.[3] (Learn more about ancient man’s penchant for aligning their technology to the stars and the Antikythera Mechanism [video]) 

What makes this device a wonder is its working parts. This number of gears does not appear in another machine until the 17th century.[4] Surely the equipment needed to manufacture these intricate parts and squish all of them into a device the size of a shoebox were beyond ancient man’s reach. Surely the detail involved in perfectly filing the two hundred and twenty-three teeth on the Antikythera’s largest gear was beyond ancient man’s capability - not true. Very obviously ancient man not only could, but did, put their knowledge to practical use. And they did so with flair.


Keeping Track of Everything

Another example is what could be called a close cousin to the Antikythera Mechanism, the Byzantine Sundial Calendar. 

This little marvel was a hand-held clock and calendar combination! Its suggested origin is 6th century Byzantium where it was used to inform the holder of the time and day.[5] The modern reconstruction shown below suggests a sundial could be affixed to a central hole to mark the hours while the display on the larger face could be used to identify the month. The smaller face and dial are engraved with seven heads to represent the seven days in a week. On the back of the device were small windows that displayed the day of the month and the phase of the moon.

This device could also display the sun's declination for any specific season. The sun's declination is important to recognize here because it is astronomical knowledge that translates to a geographical use, mainly finding latitude.[6] Knowing the sun's declination for the season in that year would also let them know how many hours of daylight they had each day.[7] Some people call this use of the sun's declination, Astro Navigation.[8]

Again, if ancient man were actively translating the universe into mathematics and impressing that knowledge on physical processes like gear wheels to compute an answer, then this sort of thing should not be so surprising to us. The fact that this ancient use of technology was forgotten is what should be the surprise.
Byzantine sundial-cum-calendar

Running out of Time

What other surprising use of ancient gear systems are out there? One might be the use of gear wheels and hydraulics in the improved water clocks of Ctisibius in Alexandria (285-222 BC).[9] [10]
This almost unknown mechanical genius was tackling the shortcomings of a main mode of time-keeping in that day. The klepsydra, or “water thief”, was a water clock that allowed a more dependable method for keeping track of time than the usual sundials. 

Their basic function consisted of filling one pot to the top with water and then letting the water drain from a spout at the bottom into another pot. Enough water could be inside to measure a small amount of time or markings could be made inside the first klepsydra to show the passing of the hours as the water level dropped. Some of these vessels even show variations on the markings to account for how daylight hours change from month to month throughout the year. [11]

And yet, the klepsydra were still only timers. Ctisibius observed that the water pressure from beginning to end did not remain constant and so time did not flow through the klepsydra as predictably as it did in the world around him. Whoever used these would always be 'running out of time'.
The solution? Make sure the klepsydra was always full. If the inflow always matched the outflow then the outflow would stay at a constant speed. The constant inflow was achieved by adding another water-tank above the main reservoir that poured water into the top while it was also draining out. Now the water exiting the klepsydra stayed at a steady, measureable rate. Ctisibius added a buoy with a pointer on top and as the water rose in the final receptacle the floater would rise with it and point out the hour on a scale.[12] This was now an actual time-keeping device.

Ancient Cuckoo Clocks?

Ctisibius's clocks quickly became more elaborate through the use of gear wheels. Though the majority of his written work was lost in the fires that destroyed the Alexandrian library, classical texts still allude to the clocks he inspired.

Shown below, the tower of this clock had colored markings for the hours of day and night. One angel figurine held a decorative spout from which the water would flow at a constant rate. The other figure held the pointer and rose to indicate the time. A series of gears slowly rotated the base of the tower to further indicate the days in every month of the year. With the use of hydraulics a model bird could even be manipulated to move and produce a whistling noise. This would have been the world's first Cuckoo Clock![13]
Ctisibius's Clock
Wikimedia Commons


So how do gears and ancient man sound together in a conversation now? Hopefully it’s no longer so far-fetched that one would dismiss it as a fluke. Ancient man clearly understood the mechanics of the world around them and boasted the capability to translate those mechanics into their daily lives. What makes their machines genius is that they are really so simple once someone has figured them out. So why was technology like the Antikythera Mechanism forgotten?

We take gears and mechanical devices like clocks for granted but really, we wouldn't know how to manufacture them if someone had not left instructions for us. Much of what Ctisibius and other great ancient minds wrote has been lost, and what we do know of them only lives on through second-hand accounts or illustrations of their inventions.

The point is that though ancient man's intelligence is incredible it is also finite and fragile. God created us after His own image; to be creative, brilliant, and inventive. When walking with the Creator in the Garden, Adam and Eve must have been some of the most excited students ever to learn under the Master of the universe. Due to the Fall we now live in a sinful, flawed state. Contrary to an evolutionary standpoint our intelligence is actually degrading! If one person forgets to pass something on, it can be lost to the next generation. Man is unstable, but God is unchanging.

[1] 'Ancient Computer', Ancient Discoveries, History Channel. Youtube. (Accessed Sept. 3, 2013)
[2] ‘Ancient Computer’ Nova Documentary, 04/03/2013. PBS. Online Video.
[3] Landis, Don. The Genius of Ancient Man: Evolution's Nightmare. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2012. Pg 49
[4] 'Ancient Computer', Ancient Discoveries, History Channel. Youtube. (Accessed Sept. 3, 2013)
[5] 'Byzantine Sundial Calendar'. Online Article.
[6] 'Declination'. Wikipedia. Online Article.
[7] 'Declination of the Sun.' Online Article.
[8] 'Astro Navigation Demystified: Calculating the Sun's Declination in a Survival Situation'. By Case, Jack. Online Article.
[9] 'Ctesibius of Alexandria' by Lahanas, Michael. Online Article.
[10] Ibid
[11] 'Ancient Computer', Ancient Discoveries, History Channel. Youtube. (Accessed Sept. 3, 2013)
[12] 'Clocks' by Lahanas, Michael. Online Article.
[13] 'Ancient Computer', Ancient Discoveries, History Channel. Youtube. (Accessed Sept. 3, 2013)

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