Antikythera Mechanism vs the Wallingford Clock

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  • Topic: Antikythera mechanism, Metonic cycle, Astrolabe
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By: Torstein Colyer
VCDF 130 Section 75
Instructor: Wayne A. Williams

It is accepted that cultures of similar societal structure, environment and resources will produce similar reactions to these forces. When comparing the Antikythera Mechanism (150-100 BCE) and The Wallingofrd clock (1327-1357 AE), a separation of 1400 years, and differences in size and materials would belie any similarity outside of their link as geared astrolabes. These differences are moot, once their secondary message is examined: a message of prestige and power.

The Hellenistic period is widely considered the final chapter in the history of ancient Greek culture. During this period the amalgamation of oriental culture into the Greek way of life produced a significant shift from the ideals that preceded it: despotism supplanted democracy as the chosen form of rule, and profit superseded small-scale production. This new form of rule for the Greek populace also brought about a change from simplicity and arête to defeatism, verbose art, and opulence of life style. Despite this complete change in ideals the new form of Greek society still looked nostalgically on the Classical era and its accomplishments.

The medieval era shared many of the core Hellenistic characteristics. In ruling the population despotism took the form of feudalism. This is the division of land from the king to opulent noblemen who in turn manage the property with serfs who were life bound to the land. Education was relegated to only the rich and the clergy; it was very uncommon for a peasant to obtain any sort of formal education, with the exclusion of learning a trade. Though anyone could join the clergy and obtain an education in the process. Wars and disease were rampant during this era; even Robert Wallingford the creator of St. Alban’s clock suffered from leprosy. Not only was the church the educational and moral guide, but it also controlled and profited from vast amounts of land and granaries for grinding wheat. This lead an abbey’s importance and influence to ebb and flow with the successes of the season’s harvest. The abbey at St. Albans, which housed the Wallingford clock, had a relative monopoly over all processing of grains, and great importance as a result.

Most apparently the Wallingford clock and the Antikythera Mechanism differ in size, material composition, designer and design aesthetics. The Antikythera Mechanism’s gears were carefully cut from sheets of bronze. Its specific size is not concretely known. Though from the size of the artifact and working models constructed from remnants, it is approximated to have been 340mm x 180mm x 90mm and housed in a wooden box. As for decoration, the Antikythera Mechanism is fully utilitarian, which reflects the Hellenistic era’s proclivity of drawing on Classical forms. It is comprised of three separate calendars. The front dial is composed of the Greek Zodiac with 360 divisions. On the back of the mechanism the first or top dial on the device uses the Metonic cycle with a two subsidiary dials, one showing the Callippic cycle and the other acting as a calendar for the ancient Olympic games, while the lower dial uses the Saros eclipse cycle. The mechanism also had wooden doors on the front and back which included instructional inscriptions to aid the user in its operation. Its function wasn’t limited to only an eclipse and astrological calculator, but it would’ve also been applied to ship navigation, as Rhodian sailors used the stars and planetary bodies to navigate on their long journeys. Rhodes is also the most widely accepted origin of the mechanism.

The inventor of the Antikythera Mechanism is not explicitly known, but the favoured candidate is Posidonius of Rhodes. De Natura Deorum by Cicero supports this; “The celestial Sphere (Planetarium) recently constructed by the well-known to all of us Posidonius, on which the Sun, the Moon, and the five planets move with each rotation...
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