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Letters to the editors

Vol. 7, NO. 3 / November 2022

To the editors:

It was a great pleasure to read Mike Edmunds’s fine essay on the Antikythera mechanism and its philosophical impact, and to continue a conversation about the potential intellectual impact of the device on its contemporaries. Given the so-called “two cultures” rift that too often dominates contemporary academia, it is an unusual honor for a scholar of ancient Greek philosophy to be asked to discuss the work of an astrophysicist. As it turns out, a “two cultures” divide also separated many writers of ancient texts from makers and users of technology. This archaeological find is a particularly pointed illustration of how poorly literary records from antiquity capture the sophistication of technology at a given date.1

If it sounds initially a little jarring to discuss the philosophical significance of an astronomical device, it might help to remember that the ancient Greek notion of philosophy was considerably broader than is now the case and embraces the conceptual foundations of scientific thought. Contemplation of the heavens was one of the first sources of theoretical speculation. Few city dwellers today can appreciate how important it would have been to earlier humans to know when the time for spring planting had arrived. Indeed, observation of the heavens in antiquity not only gave rise to the science of astronomy: speculation about the causes of the seasons and the turning of the heavens was also an important driver of early natural philosophy. Ideas about regularity, order, prediction and explanation, cause and effect, arguably started with wonder at the heavens and the need to mark its cycles. Many cultures bear evidence of this fascination, and of the urge to record, to measure, to explain, and to predict.

Elaborate calendrical devices like the Antikythera mechanism also raise questions about the relationship between the history of early scientific thought and that of ancient technology. While the early history of the sciences was once viewed as a narrative of abstract speculation and pure thought, we might ask whether technological innovations and practices played a role in forming ideas about the nature and functioning of the natural world.2 Should we view technological marvels like the mechanism as the application of ideas from the realm of  “pure science,” or could the inspiration have been mutual? Might the building of cosmic models have inspired astronomical theory as much as the other way around?

Edmunds suggests that early astronomical sphaerae changed the ways that the heavens were viewed. We see this in other periods: it is now commonly thought that the development and spread of clockwork was instrumental in inspiring the notion of a clockwork universe in early modern Europe. That is, a conception of the natural world as operating like the intersecting toothed wheels of clockwork.3 Seventeenth century mechanical philosophers, such as Robert Boyle, attempted to explain the workings of nature according to general and exceptionless mathematical laws, rather than the qualitative and imprecise generalizations that characterized previous models of explanation. Given the evidence of devices like the Antikythera mechanism even before the common era, it is natural to ask if there were comparable analogies to machines in antiquity. I share Edmunds’s interest in the possible emergence of mechanistic thinking in late Greco-Roman antiquity, more than a millennium earlier, inspired by mechanical models.4

Nonetheless, in studying the reception of ancient Greek mechanics amongst the philosophers of late antiquity, I came to doubt that clockwork was either necessary or sufficient for the key philosophical models of seventeenth century science: unnecessary, because independently operating wind-up devices were available long before clockwork, and insufficient, because attempts to explain the biological world and the physiological processes found in organisms drew heavily on the technology of theatrical automata and pneumatics.5 Astronomy, sphaera and clocks tracking the heavenly orbits may have taken pride of place in the Copernican revolution, yet other fields of inquiry were equally important in furthering the ambition of a general framework for describing the natural world. More was needed here than coordinated orbits. And as Edmunds rightly notes, the role of Islamic engineering in developing the automata and pneumatics that found their way to early modern Europe needs to be part of this history.6

Edmunds singles out calendrical devices like the Antikythera mechanism as prompting a “new worldview” in antiquity. I am less sure that cosmic sphaerae were the most important devices here. When Cicero compares the maker of cosmic models to the divine craftsman, the point of comparison that interests him is the apparent need for a coordinating intelligence to explain its organization. For centuries before the construction of calendrical calculators, philosophers had been debating whether the universe needed to be explained by a designing intelligence, or whether chance interactions of moving bodies might have produced the apparently coordinated world we see around us. Before the Darwinian revolution, natural philosophers struggled to account for the regular reproduction of form in organisms especially. Models of the cosmic whirl had some plausibility in accounting for emergent order in the motions of the stars, but the best early materialist account of the emergence of apparently functional organization in organisms—that of Empedocles—left some explanatory lacunae. The debate about design was conceptualized prior to and independently of a machine analogy.

There is another problem with material-efficient explanations, however, which is distinct from the question of design. The physics of the ancient Greeks included few quantitative laws or principles of conservation. In the ancient context, there was little to suggest that an extended series of efficient causal processes would reliably produce a determinate result, especially through transformations of the kind of process caused. Even those who saw individual causal interactions as susceptible to material-efficient causal explanations might doubt that a series of changes could reliably reach a particular result without ongoing direction by some kind of intentional control. It seems to have been constructed devices that suggested contact action and efficient causal processes alone might bring about complex causal chains and sequences determining multiple diverse outcomes through a series of steps, without ongoing intelligent direction.7

The kinds of devices that best illustrated this idea may not be cosmic sphaerae, worked by an agent, but rather the wind-up, trigger-release devices built for theatrical displays. These have been disparaged as mere toys by historians of technology. They are certainly less technologically sophisticated in their gearing than the Antikythera mechanism, and no shipwreck has yielded a surviving exemplar. But they might, in their own quaint way, have suggested to philosophers a different way that nature might work, unassisted, without divine operation. The wind-up feature of modern clockwork was present in these early theatrical devices, and illustrated the idea that a material device could be constructed to operate by itself. It is a different point of analogy, but perhaps a more important one for the history of the modern sciences. Seventeenth century mechanical philosophers like Boyle saw a machine analogy as separating questions about the independent material functioning of the natural world from questions about the origin or the need for intelligence to explain its design.8

While we can appreciate the love affair with the marvelous Antikythera mechanism, it is unlikely that a single implement changed the understanding of the universe. We need to be wary of viewing a mechanistic picture as a single, ahistorical model or as a unique key to scientific thought about the natural world. New work on the mechanism is exciting, nonetheless, and offers an occasion to reflect on the ways that experience with working artifacts shaped ideas about the natural world. Exploration of the historical connections between a mechanism and a mechanical worldview can help us understand the historical sources of ideas about the mechanical, rather than treating it as a kind of commonsense. This need not be because of a positivistic valorization of science. From one perspective, the mechanical worldview could be seen as an intellectual failure, since many aspects of the natural world turned out not to be best understood by comparison to the workings of machines. From another, it might appear as a moral travesty, fostering a dismissive attitude towards complex ecosystems that do not much resemble intersecting wheels, and are rather harder to reassemble once destroyed.

From the perspective of the history of pre-modern natural philosophy alone, the assumption of parallels between natural processes and those at work in constructed devices seem to have fostered certain ideas about causal sequencing. The ability of machines to transfer inputs of one kind into outputs of other kinds may have helped undermine the idea of causation as transmission of a quality from agent to patient. The approximations used by mechanics to quantify elusive notions of power and capacity may have helped efforts to unify and make precise the manifold ideas that contributed to the modern notions of force. The building of automata and working artifacts helped challenge the commitment to ineliminable teleological explanations and immutable natural kinds in Aristotelian science, even as it fostered bottom-up analysis of the relationship between parts and wholes.9 The sheer variety of ideas associated with the notion of a mechanistic perspective serves to remind us that comparisons are made by actors in a context, and that there may not be a single, ahistorical, mechanical way of viewing the world.

The interpretation of the Antikythera mechanism illustrates a methodological shift in the history of science in the last half century, as it moved away from narratives that assume an inevitable progression of scientific or technological ideas, including attempts to explain a failure of antiquity to produce an industrial revolution. Innovations in theory are no longer viewed as motivated by purely scientific concerns, rather than as products of a multitude of competing factors: cultural, religious, social, and economic. The contributions of fields once labelled pseudo-sciences—alchemy, astrology—are now studied for their intellectual contributions rather than disparaged. Edmunds rightly notes the very real questions about the uses to which calendrical calculators were put—which may include that of impressing clients—and explores the cultural context in which devices like the mechanism were made and used.

In this spirit of questioning linear narratives, we might also acknowledge the intellectual reasons why some ancient thinkers rejected a mechanical conception of the universe or the analogy between cosmic sphaerae and the heavens. Some doubted the existence of anything like axles or toothed wheels in the heavens; others challenged the ability of a mechanical picture to account for chemical and biological transformations; others pointed to the existence of human reason itself to question whether the world is merely a machine. For the philosophical historian, it is worth considering whether the very idea that a mechanical calculator is a “mirror of nature” may show the hold of a Newtonian perspective on our own understanding, since it is only in the seventeenth century that the description of the universe by mathematical laws came to be termed a “mechanics.”10 This association is difficult today not to view as a kind of commonsense, rather than as a historical product.

Did astronomical sphaerae have peers in other fields of ancient technology? Precedents for the use of geared instruments in quantitative calculation may include the hodometer, designed to automate the tracking of distance travelled by a wheeled cart, or the baroulkos, a gear-chain associated with the classic calculation problem of ancient Greek mechanics: to lift a given weight with a given power. Recent scholarship has suggested a much earlier date for these devices than previously thought, ascribing them to Archimedes in the late third century BCE—prior to the likely date of the Antikythera mechanism—rather than the first century CE.11 We should not forget the darker history of the links between scientific thought and technological sophistication. Precise mathematical proportions—even down to the calculation of cube roots—were used in the fourth and third centuries BCE for scaling up war machinery. Imperial investment in war technology served as an important driver of mathematical precision in engineering.12

Early mechanical devices continue to intrigue us today, even some millennia after the technology developed. Is it because we can see the mechanisms at work, in a way that our computers are not so perspicuous to us? Or, is it because such archaeological finds link us to the minds of people thousands of years ago, and imaginatively connect us to the ingenuity and creativity that inspired them? Ongoing work on ancient technologies continues to broaden our understanding of its inspirations and intellectual descendants. The dispersal and borrowing of technologies from China, India, North Africa, Persia, and other centers of innovation need to be more fully integrated into the picture. Our understanding of the early history of the sciences continues to grow and change, despite the shrinking place for antiquarian studies in the contemporary academy.

Edmunds’s splendid essay reminds us of the common human fascination with the culture and ideas of the past, and of the value of understanding our own intellectual formation. Devices like the Antikythera mechanism—an anonymous creation, likely building on the work of countless mechanics and artisans, as well as centuries of astronomical recordings and theories of the motions of the heavens—contribute to that understanding, and are worth celebrating. Edmunds’s careful work in articulating its importance for readers from a variety of backgrounds is a welcome contribution to interdisciplinary scholarship. And as a model of collaborative scholarly work, the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project is itself a true gem.

Sylvia Berryman

Mike Edmunds replies to Paul Keyser, Sylvia Berryman, Paul Cartledge, and Kyriakos Efstathiou:

I am very grateful for the kind and informative comments that these four authors have made on my slim essay. Venturing to cross from one discipline to another is a stimulating but dangerous activity, and I have often been conscious of my lack of deep classical and historical background. Nonetheless, we all seem to be in welcome agreement that the Antikythera mechanism is indeed a child of its time.

Paul Keyser provides much additional food for thought—in particular on the idea that there are further design conventions to be recognized in the mechanism. I am sympathetic to Keyser’s feeling that Archimedes has been accorded rather more expertise in the invention of sphaerae than is really justified by the evidence—at least until the contents of his lost book de Sphaerae is discovered.

Sylvia Berryman wisely councils that we should not concentrate solely on this one artefact and clearly shows that there were many other examples of “mechanization” to prompt early thought towards a mechanistic philosophy, particularly in a biological context. She also points out the importance of disagreement, even outrage, that a mechanistic viewpoint must have prompted. I wonder if this is perhaps echoed in the apparent near-disappearance of the sphaerae technology for a millennium.

I might be a little more egalitarian than Paul Cartledge in estimating the cost of the mechanism. It was made of bronze not gold; any stones incorporated were semi-precious rather than true gems; and a rough estimate of the mechanical craftsmanship involved might only be a few weeks—i.e., requiring sufficient expertise to make it indeed an expensive object, but not prohibitively so. This suggests that such devices might not have been terribly rare, with the hopeful prospect that another example or variant might yet be found in the future, perhaps preserved at a suddenly-terminated—to avoid recycling of the mechanism’s bronze!—site such as Pompeii or Herculaneum.

Kyriakos Efstathiou is of course correct in asserting that no driving knob survives on the side of the mechanism, but the presence of a crown gear that would drive the main Sun gear is excellent circumstantial evidence that a knob or similar drive may have existed. Even if it did not, and the drive was indeed from the moon pointer, the philosophical—or, even theological—nicety of a single driver or Primum Mobile still remains.

We all seem rather stumped by the question of the mechanism’s primary purpose. But perhaps it is appropriate that some uncertainty should remain about this marvelous artefact, especially given that so much valuable de-mystification has taken place in recent years!

  1. Georgia Irby-Massie and Paul Keyser, Greek Science of the Hellenistic Era: A Sourcebook (London: Routledge, 2002); and Alexander Jones, A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). 
  2. Derek de Solla Price, “Automata and the Origins of Mechanism and Mechanistic Philosophy,” Technology and Culture 5, no. 1 (1964): 9–23, doi:10.2307/3101119. 
  3. Otto Mayr, Authority, Liberty and Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe (Baltimore, MA: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986); Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); and Jessica Riskin, The Restless Clock (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). 
  4. Sylvia Berryman, The Mechanical Hypothesis in Ancient Greek Natural Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). 
  5. Sylvia Berryman, “The Clockwork Universe and the Mechanical Hypothesis,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 29, no. 5 (2021): 806–23, doi:10.1080/09608788.2020.1835605. 
  6. Donald Hill, A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times (London: Routledge, 1996); George Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007); and Elly Truitt, Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). 
  7. Berryman, The Mechanical Hypothesis
  8. Dennis Des Chene, Spirits and Clocks: Machine and Organism in Descartes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001); Alan Gabbey, “Mechanical Philosophies and their Explanations,” in Late Medieval and Early Modern Corpuscular Matter Theories, ed. Christoph Lüthy et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 441–66; Alan Gabbey, “What Was ‘Mechanical’ about ‘The Mechanical Philosophy’?” in The Reception of the Galilean Science of Motion in Seventeenth-Century Europe, ed. Carla Rita Palmerino and Hans Thijssen (Boston: Springer Verlag, 2004), 11–23; Daniel Garber, “Descartes, Mechanics, and the Mechanical Philosophy,” in Midwest Studies in Philosophy 26: Renaissance and Early Modern Philosophy, ed. Peter French and Howard Wettstein (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 185–204; and Daniel Garber, “Remarks on the Pre-History of the Mechanical Philosophy,” in The Mechanization of Natural Philosophy, ed. Sophie Roux and Daniel Garber (Dordrect: Springer Verlag, 2013), 3–26. 
  9. Michael Mahoney, “The Mathematical Realm of Nature,” in The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy, vol. 1, ed. Daniel Garber and Michael Ayers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 702–55; Dennis Des Chene, Spirits and Clocks; Alan Gabbey, “Mechanical Philosophies.” 
  10. Gabbey, “Mechanical Philosophies and their Explanations;” and Gabbey, “What Was ‘Mechanical’ about ‘The Mechanical Philosophy’?” 
  11. Andre Sleeswyk, “Vitruvius’ Waywiser,” Archives internationales d’histoire de science 29, no. 104 (1979): 11–22; M. J. T. Lewis, Millstone and Hammer: The Origins of Water Power, (Hull: The University of Hull Press, 1997); M. J. T. Lewis, Surveying Instruments of Greece and Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Andrew Wilson, “Machines in Greek and Roman Technology,” in The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World, ed. John Peter Oleson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 337–66; and Sylvia Berryman, “How Archimedes Proposed to Move the Earth,” Isis 111, no. 3 (2020): 1–6. 
  12. E. W. Marsden, Greek and Roman Artillery: Technical Treatises (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969); and Tracey Rihll, The Catapult: A History (PA: Westholme, 2013). 

Sylvia Berryman is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia.

Mike Edmunds is Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics at Cardiff University and the current President of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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