Time Machine: Re-Visiting the Golden Age of Greek Science

Reconstruction of the Antikythera computer by Dionysis Kriaris. Courtesy Kriaris.

I gave a lecture recently at the Hellenic Library at Bellflower, California. I spoke about the Antikythera Mechanism: a 2,200 years-old computer that predicted the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon and tracked the positions of the planets. This machine worked with gears, that is, scientific technology. This technology was so advanced it took nearly 2,000 years before it appeared in Europe in the eighteenth century.

I explained how and the why the Greeks were almost “modern” so many centuries before modern times. I illustrated my talk with 160 images from ancient Greek culture: ceramic vases, other archaeological artifacts, icons of ancient Greek scientific manuscripts, books and instruments, and exquisite computed tomography images of the outside and x-ray pictures of the inside of the largest mechanism fragments.

These high tech images revealed the secrets of the astronomical machine: on the front surface, there are dials of the Sun, Moon and lost dials for the planets; two concentric circles of the 365-day year calendar and the Zodiac divided into twelve sections for twelve constellations. The front view also includes astronomical inscriptions.

The back surface has two spirals: the upper one is divided into 235 sections representing the 19-year Metonic calendar of 235 months. Metonic comes from Meton, an Athenian astronomer of the fifth century BCE.  The lower spiral is divided into 223 sections of the 18-year eclipses prediction Saros cycle. Inscriptions also elucidate these calendars.

I told my audience that the mechanism was more than a marvel of high tech. It was a model of the Golden Age of Greek science in the era of Alexander the Great and his successors.

The polis of Alexander

Alexandria, Egypt, was the most important cultural capital of that world of Greek theaters, architecture, stadia for athletic competition, schools, government buildings, wide streets, and Greek spoken all over the Middle East and Asia that included Afghanistan, Pakistan, and regions of India.

This Greek world centered in Alexandria. This metropolis had a university-like Mouseion (sanctuary for the goddesses of learning) and a great Library that mirrored Aristotle’s philosophy and science.

The Greek computer was simply the greatest achievement of Greek civilization, especially pioneering science.

It incorporated the ideas of the third century BCE astronomer and mathematician Aristarchos of Samos who invented the Heliocentric Theory of the universe and the mathematical astronomy of Hipparchos, the greatest Greek astronomer who worked in Rhodes in the second century BCE.

The Greek computer had special gears that reproduced the Moon’s elliptical trajectory around the Earth. It was a mechanical heliocentric universe the likes of which, I repeat, we would not see for another two millennia.

Most people in the audience were Greeks. They asked questions and enjoyed the presentation. I was delighted.

Another time travel 

After the lecture, we were having coffee and talking. A man approached me and said,

“Do you remember me?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t know you.”

“We travelled together to America,” he said.

“We did, in 1961”?

“Yes, in August 1961.”

Looking and listening to this man was shocking:  flashes of a lost world stormed my mind. Just like the Antikythera computer instantly takes me back 2,200 years, the voice of this man pushed me back to the Summer of 1961. A period of fifty-eight years, suddenly, rushed forward — fast, too fast to recount.

“My name is Alekos Koutras,” he said. “We met in Athens and took the same airplane to Chicago.” “Yes,” I said, hugging him, “I remember.”

Alekos kept talking to me and laughing, but my mind was stuck in 1961.

My father, Andreas, did not want me to leave the village. He knew and I knew that leaving the village and Greece would be the end of all he had worked all his life: a few pieces of land that supported us with olive oil, wine, wheat, feed for our small number of sheep and goats, donkey, mule and chicken.

But my mother, daughter of a physician mother, kept insisting I go to America for college education. My brother was already in Chicago. He, too, had urged my father to let me join him.

I left with a heavy heart and lots of excitement: I wanted to know the world.

The first thing I did in Athens was to visit the American embassy for a student visa. It was in the embassy that I met Alekos Koutras. Mysteriously, we had invitations to study in the same school in Chicago, a school that called itself “American College of Engineering and Technology.”

At eighteen, I did not know what I should study. Should I become a doctor like my grandmother Demetra? My mother said yes. But I was confused. I was an outstanding student in high school, so an invitation from this unknown American school attracted me. And finding another Greek student like Alekos with similar interests, assured me, at least temporarily, that engineering and technology might just be fine for me.

In Chicago, at Sailors’ Drive In

Alekos also had a brother in America, but his brother was working in a sailing ship. I invited him to come to stay with me and my brother, and he did.

My uncle George came to the O’Hara Airport to take me and Alekos to “Sailors’ Drive In” where my brother worked. We entered my uncle’s car and soon we were driving through downtown Chicago. I kept my face glued to the car window looking up those skyscrapers with awe.

Then the car started going through the narrow streets of black south Chicago where sporadically I could see lighted glass crosses and next to them the signs saying “Jesus Saves.”

“Uncle George,” I asked, “where are we? What’s the meaning of these glass crosses?”

“I will tell you later,” he answered.

We arrived at “Sailors’ Drive In” in late afternoon. The Sun was just about to set. My brother Pete and cousin Nick, wearing long white aprons, came out of the restaurant and hugged us.

Alekos and I worked part time for my uncle’s “Sailors’ Drive In” in Oaklawn in South Chicago. We used to take the bus for the American College of Engineering and Technology.  This was a one-building fake college for foreign students. I immediately smelled deception and fraud. Its instructors taught classes I had in high school.

I complained to the instructors and, in short time, to the immigration authorities, which shut it down. This cost me a semester, but gave me a chance to improve my elementary English. I then registered at the University of Illinois in Chicago, which in my time was known as Navy Pier.

Then, sometime in early 1962, Alekos disappeared – until he reappeared at my lecture in April 11, 2019 in Bellflower, California. We kept asking each other questions. He drove me home.

I invited him to come to my Claremont house for a pancake breakfast. He did. Talking to him for hours put me in a time machine. I travelled to several decades ago.

Friends, like brothers, have the whole world at their fingertips.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.