THE MECHANISM LOST
AT ANTIKYTHERA

THE MECHANISM LOST
AT ANTIKYTHERA

THE MECHANISM LOST
AT ANTIKYTHERA

THE MECHANISM LOST
AT ANTIKYTHERA

Wicked Game   SadNES

The student of history who devotes his attention solely to the most notable events and personae of the Hellenic tradition would only imperfectly comprehend its true character. Though the myriad nature of its Di Majores offers the pre-eminent claim upon the follower of the divine, it is always from the mundane and the mortal that surprises emerge. Much, of course, is lost to us. So it is was with the Antikythera mechanism, a complex computational device discovered in hundreds of pieces on the sea bed near the eponymous island in 1900. A remnant of a ~1st c. BCE shipwreck, its nature—as sophisticated and intricate as a Victorian-era timepiece—confounded experts for a century. A definitive resolution of its astronomical purpose came only recently, narrowing the horizons on possibility even as it gave closure to an obsession that led many careers into ruin.

This strangest of puzzles, however, turned out to have a final twist. When the french archaeologist and historian Alain Brise died in September 2011, he left behind a collection of obscure documents and artifacts previously believed lost. Questionable family associations before and during World War II are held to be the reason both for his inheritance of the documents and his lifelong decision to conceal them; they were probably stolen from Jewish collections. A process of authentication is underway at the Ecole Nationale des Chatres, the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

Among the most valuable of the artifacts are fragments of correspondence, written mostly on paper or papyrus, between the astronomer and geographer Hipparchos in Rhodes and others: a namesake grandson of Eratosthenes in Alexandria, one Ptolemais of Cyrene, and a nephew, Critobulus. These remains may shed new light on the origins of this complex pre-modern mechanism.

(Missing/fragmentary passages are indicated with ellipses, deduced words are in square brackets.)

Life-changing moments seem minor in pictures  C418

HIPPARCHOS TO ERATOSTHENES

All my work is for nothing! My book on Aratus is a flop and will soon be forgotten. But as luck would have it, I am still on familiar terms with one or two of the other wealthy men of Rhodes, and need not risk my own fortune in recovering from the loss. I took examples of my navigation machines to them and they immediately understood their value, even the simplest of them; assuming they can be perfected, it will not be hard to convince the captains too of their necessity.

I am as ever proud of your swift accomplishments in Egypt. To me, the time since our sieges east seem within arm's reach. But I'm sure to you, surrounded by comforts, they are already a receding into the fog of youth.

Much has changed here in my years away; it is the custom to entertain now more than ever in the past, and this means feeding all-comers for hours on end. But it is not all bad; it pleases me greatly to be under such clear skies. Abiron here has gained much attention for his dispensing machine, which accepts a coin and thereby dispenses an amount of holy water1. A counterweight then causes the coin to roll into a secure chamber. Installed by the odeion, it is gaining so much attention, despite its simple and quite uncouth design, and much profit. I have described a dispensing machine that evinces a finer intricacy and thereby a finer prize--when built, it will offers one of several epithets on reed slips to please a visitor2.


1. Similar devices were also described by Heron of Alexandria.
2. Probably from Homer.

ERATOSTHENES TO HIPPARCHOS

... you deal with those parasites? Wit is one thing but their insatiable appetites confounded me in every year I dwelt in Athens. I am fortunate here that tolerance runs not to accomodation and lavish parties are out of fashion. The reconciliation1 and its peace are recent enough, and while abundance keeps even beggars fed and ...

.... I am sure your machine will be among the finest in rhodes, but you forget with whom you correspond. We are of no mean talent here; the library details fantastical devices, such as those used to arrange the waters of the Parthian [gardens] ... their creators, unlike you, were no mere astronomers! I am tempted to emerge to show you that there is more to life than the deposits of tourists bored of the local theatrics, and that machines, though they serve man, come from the Gods.


1. between fractious co-regents Ptolemy VII and Cleopatra II

Out from the Deep   Enigma

HIPPARCHOS TO ERATOSTHENES

... has already proven fruitful. With a ge[earing mechanism] ...

... patrons used it repeatedly! Each would exhaust its options. At first, the gear would increment a single moment with each coin, allowing a customer to receive all three possibilities with three coins, until some barbarian damaged it to steal the takings. When repairing it, I added a trap and a ratcheting lever -- the coin cannot now enter the machine until the lever is pulled, and in doing so sufficient force is generated to spin the gear to a random moment. Now they play until they have them all; one unlucky fellow entered ten coins in a row and did not earn all three slips.

But you're right. This is an inconsequential toy. In my workshop, I have begun work on a device that produces a correct but truly arbitrary sentence, impressing it upon wet clay.

My FATHER is OLD but my DOG is DEAD
MOTHER POOR SLAVE WORTHLESS
SISTER SLOB COUSIN INVISIBLE
BROTHER WISE MISTRESS DUMB

It can produce any combination thereof (or it will once completed) and have the punters rolling them in.

ERATOSTHENES TO HIPPARCHOS

I see the humor of it! But again, it will exhaust itself is no time at all. I had a similar thought from your original devision and managed, at some expense, to construct a machine that adopts the same principle to create more meaningful and delicate forms1. ...

... for this enterprise of ours to be more than a toy it must be impossible for the reader, even one familiar with the machine, to discern whether the machine or its operator produced the verse. Send me three couplets addressed to Aphrodite, and I shall [identify] ...


1. No poetic or generative output from Eratosthenes survives here.

CRITOBULUS TO HIPPARCHOS

O uncle, I am besotted! It is impossible for me to wed the merchant's daughter to whom you betrothed me, since I have seen the young lady from the country, when you gave me permission to leave Athens during the festival of the Oschophoria. How charming she is, with laughter pleasant as clouds dancing on the rosy-fingered dawn; the undying fame in her heart aligns with my own as the rising sun glitters upon it. She must either be mine, or I will throw myself to the waves.

Intergalactic Elevator  Beta to the Max

HIPPARCHOS TO ERATOSTHENES

At first I was disheartened to see how much more advanced was your machine than mine, but my excitement and inspiration returned soon enough! I have of course been working also, and have found that even the most complex mechanisms of this type--and we are both producing likenesses of one another's work here, scale notwithstanding--are insufficient. We stand at the most extreme bank of a great gulf, which we must somehow overcome in a single leap. It is easy for a sufficiently elaborate machine to choose a series of words that make sense, so long as it is merely interchanging components of sentences, all of which are chosen before-hand so that any part makes sense with any other. There is no true poetry to it, only a .....

... final result will be in the manner of a great tree, or a system of rivers such as those around your city. May the ...

... in the meantime, I have family troubles to deal with ...

ERATOSTHENES TO HIPPARCHOS

... I found myself preparing to make excuses, my friend, in the same difficulties and distractions of life! But the truth is that my bluster has exhausted itself and I can find no solution, no bridge, and am at my wit's end. Perhaps I will return to this later. It is most exhilarating to enjoy these challenges with you, even if I know one day my arrogance will ...

... yours ... from Babylon with a greater wisdom ...

She's Electric  VEGA

HIPPARCHOS TO ERATOSTHENES

Do not give up! How might ... key is in that it must return over and over again the paths it has already taken, that it must remember its own path ... that but one small component of the profound ... [defies?] easy description, the system of instruction required is ... ethos ...

... verbs, nouns, adjectives in 512 possible sentence templates, with 64 of ... resulting in truly novel phrases of fixed meter, which may each be generated in less than a day and assembled to perfect verse by repetition; I have been working with three hendecasyllabic lines and ... If not tireless in resemblance to one another, a spirit emerges from many conjunctions, a spirit that appears to ...

(Following is a fragment, which may be part of the prior letter, or a subsequent and missing one)

... stands six feet high and is comprised of five thousand individual parts. my fortune is in this, and all the efforts of my workshop, and all the debts that I have [accrued] ...

[Note: according to the BL Papyri (accessible at the Papyri.info website) generated as a result of the Augustinian census, the property of the Head Librarian of Alexandria fell into probate at about this time, indicating the death of Eratosthenes' namesake grandson]

UNADDRESSED1

I would take flight on wings of wild disorder
The radiant light of dawn which gilds your eye
Even dire fear, the clamor of your goddess heart
Cannot deter me


1. Clearly written by Hipparchos, contrived as the output of his machine, intended for Eratosthenes.

PTOLEMAIS TO HIPPARCHOS1

Unfamiliar with your name, Rhodian
I asked among the copyists and scribes
And learned of triangles and stars, but not of
Rude correspondence


1. It is immediately apparent that the author of this letter is gamely responding to what must have been a bizarre and unexpected message apparently intended for her.

Strict Machine  Alison Goldfrapp

HIPPARCHOS TO CRITOBULUS

In all things the grandson of Eratosthenes defeats me. Even after his earlier submissive declaration, it turns out that he has me beaten. I have put a year of my life into this, then forgot the formalities. Surely that would not offend him. But now he goads me! He has done exactly as I have, but his machine generates insults directed at my person, in the same meter as the verse he would have me address to the queen of love. ... Has it been so long? This absorbs all ... I simply cannot ...

... It is all I can do to improve my machine and perhaps add another word or two of my own to create a larger effect, a ...

[PTOLEMAIS TO HIPPARCHOS]

(A second letter from Hipparchos to "Aphrodite" is missing; this is apparently in reply)

.... will forgive me for my callous words. I am in receipt of your pledge, and am struck by its beauty. As widow of Enobarbon, it has long been my habit to turn away all manners of suitor; but none has before returned as you have, with undiminished ardor.

I remain baffled by your attentions, but am not unreceptive to them. Will you not reveal more of yourself? If I were ...

Dolphin  Bjørn Arve Lagim and Tor Linløkken

HIPPARCHOS TO CRITOBULUS

... days after I sent it, I received news of his death and the subsequent disposition of his estate, including to whom his home was sold. I am at a complete loss. I have not only lost my greatest friend and rival, but have send absurdities to a lady of means. ...

... Had I not discovered this, I might very nearly have ruined myself in this obsession. And yet now I find myself conspiring to correspond further, but halted by the awareness that the words I sent were not my own, to the greatest extent, but that of an intermediary. Now I am unable to find the words to express myself at all. All that is left to do is complete the ...

CRITOBULUS TO HIPPARCHOS

Why trouble yourself to write so often, uncle? I am in need of funds, not letters.

HIPPARCHOS TO CRITOBULUS

The machine, now of twelve thousand parts, has cost me my fortune, and practically nothing remains. It moves with the precision of Hermes' arrow but the aspect of Morpheus, and speaks to me in my dreams. Good luck to you, nephew.

Come to me  Björk

[HIPPARCHOS TO APHRODITE] (fragment)

... our soul ...

PTOLEMAIS TO HIPPARCHOS

...my slave located correspondence between yourself and Eratosthenes. I am now in a fullness of understanding. It is possible you are a scoundrel, but I have learned to believe the least that the facts suggest, and would have you know that Eratosthenes, superintendent of [the library] died last year. ...

... I would add that my last letter to you must not be taken as a ...

... these strange machines, and the strange craft that lies behind them ... an intrigue that ...

... what do they tell us of the world? what would men such as yourself tell us about it? I am lonely, and would not have you abandon me to my thoughts, but rather address me directly ...

Music is Math  Boards of Canada

HIPPARCHOS TO PTOLEMAIS

... I have just returned from the harbor, where the passage of time is made clear in the comings and goings of ships and barges. It rarely strikes us how our thoughts move from one place to another.

Thank you for informing me of my friend's death. The truth is that I knew of it, but was paralyzed in my course of action. These are murmurs from Hypnos' realm echoing in daylight. It is clear that we are all now aware of the circumstances in which this correspondence originated. I am sad, not least for his departure but also for my own haplessness, and the insult to you. I hope that you will accept that my machine was a second voice, an extension of that within us that is divine, and accept its words in that spirit. Perhaps in another world, you and I might have come to know one another without the interstices of Hēphaistos ...

... What can I tell you about the world? Unlike the great pile of gears and rods that fills the end of my workshop, this smaller mechanism, which I send with this very letter by way of apology and introduction, shows only the most simple and wonderful traces of it. It tells not of the earth, but of the harmonies that rule it, which may be revealed by the skies at any time that pleases you. To a sea captain, it is a mere tool; but such men are hard to convince of anything beyond what they can see, and so it has remained in my possession. I am pleased to see it go.

In its mystery, which I submit to you here, is all that I have learned. In its fate is all the sorrow, all the hope, and all the love that I may pass on.

Adrift  Tycho

With apologies to Alciphron and others.

BONUS TRACK  Love is Blue  Werner Müller

Previously: Mixtape of the Lost Decade, Mixtapes in Collission

Recently at Boing Boing: Haunted Mansion Funnies, The Grammar of Happiness and The Sincerest Form of Parody

24 Responses to “The Mixtape Lost at Antikythera”

  1. Finlay McCourt says:

    Is there any way to view these sources? Or could you provide links to other mentions of these letters? (Do the Ecole Nationale des Chatres, or the Centre for Hellenic studies have anything up about them?)
    I do research on ancient Mechanics, have not heard about this, and would love to find out more…

  2. Ha! All the audio tracks played at the same time! I was opening tabs from my reader, and it took me forever to figure out which tab the cacophony of music was coming from!

  3. penguinchris says:

    Rob, did you do the drawing? It’s funny and really neat… t-shirt material.

  4. Max Wainer says:

    OK, go ahead and count me among the clueless, but is this for real or is it a work of fiction?

  5. tubacat says:

    Beautiful — I had a chance to see the Antikythera in Athens two years ago, and imagining it in the company of a “big brother” generating poetry that could pass the Turing test is a hoot. Not that this is exactly wasted on Boingers, but do you have plans to publish this elsewhere, Rob?

  6. zuben says:

    Of lesser renown than the Great Library of Alexandria was the University of Rockall. It was there that the future of Western civilization would eventually graduate.

  7. hpplacra says:

    the illustration is EFFFFFing amazing!

  8. Iain Marcks says:

    mr. beschizza you’re scary good. also, i would wear that shirt.

  9. Dee says:

    Thanks, Rob!  Masterful.
    Some received dialect dissertation, some Poe, some de Bergerac, some DFW, all Beschizza.
    Delicious.

    And the art. Yeah, I’d wear it.

    As one’s mentor often pined of “a love of history, whether real or contrived,” I’ve placed this in my most favorite screen scrapes directory and will probably read it again as I do Nomen Ludi.

    τοτοτοῖ (tototoî)!
    A library is a repository of medicine for the mind.
    Eukha’ristos eimi’. Kha’ris soi,
    VoxAudi (Daren)

  10. Mike Irene says:

    Everything about this is absolutely beautiful. Thank you!

  11. Jeff Scherr says:

    Where else does one find history lesson + music video mix/mash?  Brilliant!

  12. Dave Pease says:

    i like this a lot. thanks.

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