Andrew Carol, a software engineer in his day job, has successfully recreated the Antikythera Mechanism — an ancient analog computer that was lost for 2,000 years — using Legos.
The Antikythera Mechanism was an analog computer built by the ancient Greeks somewhen between 150-100 BC to calculate celestial events, notably eclipses. It did so using a series of gears to perform the calculations, the kind of technology not attempted again (that we know about) until Charles Babbage began working on his Difference Engine in 1822.
Unfortunately for the world of science, the Mechanism was lost to history when it sunk to the bottom of the sea while being transported by ship. While it’s hard to fathom how the world may have been different had it remained in use, it wasn’t found until 1901. Even then, however, the rusted, sea-claimed device remained a mystery until it was X-rayed and photographed in 2006, a process that lead to researchers being able to reverse engineer its purpose and abilities.
In 2009, according to Fast Company, Andrew Carol decided to take on the Antikythera Mechanism as his next Lego project. A noted Lego buff, Mr. Carol had previously built a functioning Difference Engine, and when he was approached by Nature.com about making a Antikythera Mechanism, he jumped at the chance.
“The Mechanism is interesting to me because people think of these astronomical predictions only being possible with sophisticated NASA computers,” Mr. Carol told the magazine. “But to realize that someone actually built a mechanical machine to do that 2000 years ago is pretty impressive — and figuring out to to do it myself in Lego is fascinating too.”
When he set out to recreate the device, he used Lego Technic, a specialized line of blocks and gears (and other stuff) Lego offers to users wanting to do a bit more than make houses and Mammoth Cars out of their Legos. Because he was limited to the gears offered by Lego, his recreation is not a gear-for-gear copy of the original, but rather a series of modules that each performs different calculations that were also performed by the original Greek device.
“My machine uses about 110 gears, and 7 complete differentials, to do most of what the original one did, he said. “But their calendar and ours are completely incompatible, so I also had to add complexity to make the eclipse predictions understandable. My machine has two extra indicators: one for the decade and one for the year. That way, as you turn the crank on the machine, you can read the dials and say ‘OK, a solar eclipse will happen in April of 2024.’”
The following movie was shot by filmmaker John Pavlus as part of his article for Fast Company.