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  • Writer's pictureAlex King

A Brief History of the Herakleidon Museum in Athens

What is the Herakleidon Museum?

The Herakleidon Museum is a museum of science that exhibits various mechanisms and artefacts, and explores how technology was integrated into ancient society.

Herakleidon Museum

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Herakleidon Museum History

The Herakleidon Museum of Science, Art and Mathematics is housed between two smart and lovingly restored Neoclassical townhouses here in the Thissio neighbourhood. The museum was founded by Paul Firos and his wife Anna-Belinda in 2004. It began life as a gallery, exhibiting art by the likes of M. C. Escher, Carol Wax, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and others, before pivoting to focus on the science and technology of antiquity.

While there are other places in which to explore ancient Greek technology in Athens, the Herakleidon Museum takes a more holistic view: looking not just at the mechanics of the technologies themselves, but at how technology was understood in the ancient world and integrated into society. The ancient Greeks’ experience of science, technology and the world around them was not purely rational but often coloured by their beliefs in divinities and mythology. Science and technology were developed in constant dialogue with religion, the arts and wider society.

Here you’ll find perhaps the brightest and most engaging reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism, the world’s first analogue computer. This complex piece of ancient machinery was found by divers aboard the wreck of a Roman cargo ship off the coast of the Greek island Antikythera in 1901. You can see the original mechanism – or what remains of it after almost 2,000 years lying on the seabed – at the National Archaeological Museum. Scientists and archaeologists have spent the last century trying to reveal the mysteries that lurk within this rusty chunk of metal and gears. The task is made even more challenging by the fact that two-thirds of the mechanism is missing – and what remains is made up of 82 separate fragments.

What we do know is that this hand-powered device displayed the motion of the universe, the movement of five planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, phases of the moon, and lunar and solar eclipses – which can still be accurately predicted by modern replicas of the mechanism. The ship carrying it sank sometime between 70 and 60 BC and the mechanism was probably constructed earlier that century.

There have been many attempts to recreate the mechanism over the years. British physicist Derek J. de Solla Price created the first functional model of the Antikythera Mechanism using cardboard and a cigar box in the 1950s, which his family subsequently donated to the Herakleidon Museum. X-rays taken in the 1970s and ‘90s revealed new details about the mechanism’s inner workings. But countless questions remained until a team at Cardiff University, Wales, published CT scans in 2006, which provided a remarkable level of detail, such as the ancient ‘user’s manual’ inscribed on its door.

The information from Cardiff’s discoveries inspired a wealth of renewed interest in the mechanism – and further new theories about its creation, capabilities and origins. Most recently, another team of researchers at University College London announced in 2021 that they had ‘solved the mystery’ and released 3D models showing how nearly all of the mechanism’s gearwheels could fit within a space only 25 millimetres deep. To create their model, they drew on previous research, inscriptions on the mechanism and ‘an ancient Greek mathematical method described by the philosopher Parmenides’. But doubts remain over whether the ancient Greeks possessed the technical abilities to construct the mechanism as visualised by the UCL team. And if they could have done so, why to date have we discovered only one surviving example?

Theories about how and why the Antikythera Mechanism was built range from the credible, that it was a teaching tool or a toy, to the bizarre: that it came from an alien spaceship. But with so much lost to the ocean and the mists of time, we may never be able to fathom all the mechanism’s secrets.

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