An Idle Speculation

December 11, 2006

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I have just read a report on an Ancient Greek machine – The Antikythera Mechanism – thought to have been an astronomical calculator made around the first or second century BC. Although this brass device was first discovered in 1902, it took until the 1950’s before it was surmised by Derek de Solla Price that this find was an early analogue calculator, and then it wasn’t until the 1970’s that Price was able to suggest how it worked. The device is in the news again because a new team in Greece and the UK is studying it again using newer x-ray tomography and other technologies and have questioned some of Price’s explanations.

Further reading on the subject has been very instructive for me on how the Wikipedia works and in some way has provided a validation of its usefulness. The section dealing with the Antikythera Mechanism recognises that Price’s work has been called into question and suggests that it needs to be rewritten. It also has a talk forum attached to it, with many interesting discussions on various Wiki projects such as the History of Science and Classical Greece and Rome and how they should be handled by the Wikipedia. For the casual user of the Wikipedia, it is worth taking a moment to look at the complexity of the operation. I am also pleased to see a note that the section headed ‘Possible Uses’ has no references or sources cited for the claims there, suggesting that pure speculation has no place in an encyclopaedia that wishes to be regarded as an authority.

Reading about this early calculator reminded me of an idle speculation of mine many years ago. On a visit to a Roman amphitheatre in Arles, I was struck by how modern the ancient Roman central heating was. It got me thinking about how much science and technology the ancients possessed and led me to speculate on the possibility of the Romans building a steam railway to China to open up the silk trade. Why not? They had wheeled vehicles that could run on iron-banded, spoked wheels with suspension. They understood the piston which they used in water pumps. They had the road technology to make straight roads. And so on. Surely the railway was possible?

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