I had a thoughtful afternoon in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens some years ago and was inspired to write this.
One day, many hundreds of years ago, there was a storm in the Mediterranean Sea. And it was no different to all the other storms that happened before or after, but this storm must have been a special storm because it sank a special ship.
The ship itself was no different from the many other ships that have sailed before or after this event, but this one was special because it carried a special cargo. And the cargo itself was no different to what has sunk in the Mediterranean either before or after, except that there was just one piece in that cargo that is, so far, unique.
It’s unique because the person who put it together thought a lot about what they were doing. Obviously, lots of people think about what they make, but these must have been special thoughts because no one else has yet come across anything so clever that was made so far back in ancient history. And the thoughts were special because unlike many pretty things that you can only look at, this little item can be used for a specific objective and that is what really makes it special. It can be used to tell the positions of the stars and predict eclipses and it does this because it has lots of moving parts that all move very precisely indeed and that is why it can be called a ‘mechanism’.
And why was this little item on the sea? Because someone far away wanted to buy it. The people who made it had become famous in other countries for their creations because they were clever and beautiful. But over time the creators had become poor and the people in other countries had become rich. And what the poor people had left were their thoughts and ideas but perhaps they were not so happy when other peoples' appreciation of those ideas meant that they wanted souvenirs and these were often the physical representation of those ideas and the more such souvenirs that were taken away the fewer there were left.
Eventually, these rich people (the Romans, inspired by the Greeks) would become known for their own beautiful and clever works and when they became poor their children too would see things their forefathers had made taken away by rich people in other countries.
And so it came to be that this little mechanism, was being transported over the sea because someone else could afford to buy it. Perhaps they knew how to use it, or perhaps they didn’t. The storm meant that it never reached its destination. It was a loss for the person who sold it, it was a loss for the person who bought it and it was obviously a loss for the sailors who carried it.
And so, it remained a loss for many hundreds of years, except when it was found in the sea and people started to work out what it was and how it worked. And the cleverer people became the more they realized how clever the mechanism was. So what had been a loss for so many years became a discovery and then an important discovery and will remain so, for many more years.
And because by this time people had invented all sorts of different mechanisms, they needed to give it a name and they called it the Antikythera mechanism because that’s the island near where it was lost. And this time instead of rich foreign people taking it away, they paid for it to be seen near where it was found. But they wanted their name linked to it because they wanted everyone to see that they were clever and that they knew what was beautiful.