Now study leader Mike Edmunds of the University of Cardiff in Wales and his colleagues have helped to complete the picture. The researchers decoded the mechanism's rusty text and recreated images of some of its smallest gears.
The researchers inspected the surface of the object (which is currently housed in the National Archaeology Museum in Athens, Greece) using new imaging technology. (Related: "Archimedes' Secrets Revealed by Atom Smasher" [August 3, 2006].)
The images were then pieced together using computer software, allowing scientists to reconstruct the object in three dimensions. "It was like being able to hold it in your hand and turn it to the light," Edmunds said.
Using a special X-ray machine, the scientists were also able to probe deep into the device and produce 3-D reconstructions of the gear wheels.
"We could see the clever and subtle way in which the gears worked," Edmunds added.
Many previously hidden inscriptions were revealed by these new techniques, including geographical references such as 'south,' 'Spain,' and 'Pharos'—the island in Egypt that once housed the wonder of the world known as the lighthouse of Alexandria.
"The text and our reconstruction of the dials tell us that the instrument could be used to predict eclipses of the moon and sun," Edmunds said.
The level of sophistication also hints that more discoveries may be on the way.
François Charette, a science historian at Germany's University of Munich, believes more devices like the Antikythera mechanism must exist.
"There has to have been a chain of development behind it," Charette said. "Otherwise it is like finding a high-speed 20th-century train without any of the earlier trains."
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