The High Technology of the Ancients

Have We Forgotten Secrets that We Once Knew?


Derek J. de Solla Price got the shock of his life when the true identity of an artifact he happened to be cleaning finally dawned on him. The curious object had lain in Athens’ National Museum for half a century after being hauled up from 120 feet below the surface of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, sometime around Easter, 1900. It had been found by Elias Stadiatos, a Greek sponge diver working off the coast of Antikythera, a small island near Crete, and part of an ancient Roman freighter that included statues plus other period materials dating the shipwreck to circa 80 B.C.

While examining the object on 17 May 1902, Greek archaeologist Valerios Stais noticed a gear wheel embedded in what appeared to be a piece of rock. It was actually a heavily encrusted, badly corroded mechanism in three main parts, comprising dozens of smaller fragments.

The “Antikythera Device,” as he called it, remained an enigma for the next 49 years, until Price, a professor of sci­ence history at Yale University, recognized it for what it really was: a mechanical analog computer, an instrument millennia ahead of its time.

“It was like finding a turbo-jet in Tutankamun’s tomb,” Price wrote in his June 1959 article for Scientific Ameri­can, “An Ancient Greek Computer.” He pointed out that the Antikythera Device uses a differential gear, not re­invented until the mid-1500s, to compute the synodic lunar cycle by subtracting the effects of the sun’s movement from effects of sidereal lunar movement, thereby calculating the motions of stars and planets. This function makes the artifact far more advanced than its 16th century differential gear, bringing it into the space age.

The advanced mechanism’s function gradually revealed itself after decades of re-examination. When past or future dates were entered via a crank, it calculated the position of the sun, moon or other astronomical information, such as the location of other planets. The use of differential gears enabled the mechanism to add or subtract angular veloci­ties. Its front dial shows the annual progress of the sun and moon through the zodiac against an Egyptian calendar. The upper rear dial displays a four-year period with associated dials showing the Metonic cycle of 235 synodic months, which approximately equals 19 solar years. The lower rear dial plots the cycle of a single synodic month, with a secondary dial showing the lunar year of 12 synodic months.

Made of bronze and originally mounted in a wooden frame, the Antikythera Device stands 13 inches high, is 6.75 inches wide, but just 3.5 inches thin, and inscribed with more than 2,000 characters. Although most of the text has been deciphered, its complete translation still awaits publication. The complex instrument is displayed in the Bronze Collection of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, but Atlantis Rising readers in the U.S. may see an accu­rate reconstruction of this ancient analog device at the American Computer Museum in Bozeman, Montana.

The original served as an extremely useful navigation device that enabled the Roman freighter in which it was found to successfully complete transatlantic voyages to America, more than fifteen centuries prior to Columbus. And, doubtless, the Antikythera Device was not the first of its kind, but rather the result of prolonged development, stretching back long before it came to rest at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea in 80 B.C.

The Roman statesman, Cicero, wrote that the consul, Marcellus, brought two devices back to Rome from the ran­sacked city of Syracuse. One device mapped the sky on a sphere, and the other predicted the motions of the sun and the moon and the planets. His description seems to match the Antikythera Device, interestingly enough, because Syracuse was the scene of a Roman attack foiled by Archimedes. The Greek mathematical genius arranged a large ar­ray of mirrors to reflect sunlight onto the attacking ships, causing them to catch fire. While modern skeptics believed the account entirely legendary, a group at MIT performed their own tests and concluded that Archimedes military re­flector was feasible after all. The passage of time long ago effaced all traces of his ancient “weapon of mass-destruction,” and finds such as the Antikythera Device are extremely rare. But they do suggest that technology in the deep past was far more advanced than mainstream scholars would have us believe.

Among the most surprising, but well-attested advances actually employed by our ancestors was the submarine, faint memories of which persisted into the Middle Ages, when such a craft was unthinkable, given the Dark Age men­tality of the time. La Vrai Histoire d’Alexandre, “A True History of Alexander,” is a 13th century French manuscript describing a voyage undertaken by Alexander the Great, “in a glass barrel” that carried him from one Greek port to another unnoticed beneath the keels of his fleet of warships in 332 B.C. He was said to have been so satisfied with the submarine’s performance, he ordered its production for his navy. If La Vrai Histoire d’Alexandre was our only source for such a story, we might be inclined to dismiss it as a medieval fantasy. But his teacher, Aristotle, wrote of “sub­mersible chambers” deployed in that same year by Greek sailors during the blockade of Tiros, when the craft stealthi­ly emplaced underwater obstacles and moored sub-surface weapons of some kind.

During Xerxes I’s invasion of Europe, a Greek officer, Scyllis, surfaced at night to make his way among all the Per­sian ships, cutting each vessel loose from its moorings. His submarine used a snorkel, a hollow breathing tube pro­truding just above the surface of the water. After having set the enemy fleet adrift, Scyllis navigated nine miles back to Cape Artemisium, where he rejoined his fellow Greeks. Similar actions were recounted by some of Classical Civili­zation’s foremost scholars, including Herodotus (460 B.C.) and Pliny the Elder (A.D. 77).

Around 200 B.C., Chinese chronicles reported the operation of a submarine device carrying one man successfully to the bottom of the sea and back again.

While no ancient submarines have so far been found, physical evidence of a much different kind does survive to prove ancient technology was far in advance of its time. During the late 1990s, the quartz crystal eyes of early dynas­tic statues were examined by Jay Enoch (School of Optometry, University of California, Berkeley) and Vasudevan Lakshminarayanan (School of Optometry, University of Missouri, St. Louis). They were surprised by the intricacy of anatomical detail found in the artificial eyes of the 4th dynasty representation of Prince Rahotep and a sculpted scribe from a 5th dynasty tomb at Sakkara, which the scientists tried to reproduce with the latest optical technology. The ancient Egyptian lenses were found to be of superior quality to the duplications. Enoch and Lakshminarayanan con­cluded “that because of the performance quality and design complexity, it is highly doubtful that the lenses used to re-create eye structures in ancient Egyptian statues were the first lenses created, despite the fact that they are 4,600 years old.”

Their research was complimented by a nearly thirty-year investigation published in 2001. “The earliest actual lenses which I have located,” Robert Temple stated in Australia’s New Dawn magazine, “are crystal ones dating from the 4th Dynasty of Old Kingdom Egypt, circa 2500 B.C. These are to be found in the Cairo Museum and two are in the Louvre in Paris. But archaeological evidence showing that they must have been around at least seven hundred years earlier has recently been excavated at Abydos, in Upper Egypt. A tomb of a pre-dynastic king there has yielded an ivo­ry knife handle bearing a microscopic carving which could only have been done under considerable magnification (and of course can only be seen with a strong magnifying glass today).”

Temple makes a connection between the mirrors in the Pharos Lighthouse and construction of the Great Pyra­mid: “The technology for surveying the Great Pyramid existed at least as far back as 3300 B.C., and doubtless earlier than that, since we can hardly presume that the ivory knife handle was the first such object to exist, as it is already highly sophisticated and suggests a long-standing tradition. Thus, we know that magnification technology was in use in Egypt, in 3300 B.C. (The Great Pyramid) is so perfectly oriented to the geographical points of the compass that no one has ever been able to understand how this was done, for the accuracy exceeds any hitherto known technology of ancient Egypt. Then there is the equally famous question of how the extreme accuracy of the construction of the Great Pyramid was possible.”

The prominent British Egyptologist, Sir Flinders Petrie, marveled at “an amount of accuracy equal to most mod­ern opticians’ straight edges of such a length” in the Great Pyramid, and was seconded a century later when Peter Lemesurier observed that its twenty-one acres of polished limestone outer casing “was leveled and honed to the stan­dard of accuracy normal in modern optical work.” Egyptian records themselves describe a level of reflective technolo­gy mainstream scholars are still reluctant to consider. At 60 feet in height, the 121-ton obelisk at Heliopolis raised for Pharaoh Sesostris I’s jubilee in 1942 B.C. is the oldest of its kind, and inscribed with a hieroglyphic text describing “13,000 priests chanting before a huge mirror of burnished gold.”

In The Electric Mirror of the Pharos Lighthouse, author Larry Brian Radka conclusively shows that practical elec­tronics were applied in Pharaonic civilization, most obviously at the famous Lighthouse. The amount of fuel, he points out, needed to power its beacon if flammable, never existed in all of Egypt, and imports would have not only proved prohibitively expensive, but been exhausted within the first year of its operation. Due to these and other no less cogent considerations, Radka credibly argues that the Pharos Lighthouse featured a carbon-arc lamp, in which a blindingly bright light is produced by an electrical spark jumping between the pointed ends of a positively and nega­tively charged rod. Its power source was a bank of liquid, primary cells known as the Lalande Battery. Invented (re­invented?) in the 19th century by Felix Lalande and Georges Chaperon, the Egyptians possessed all the materials (glass, copper, mercury, and lye) to make its ancient predecessor. As Radka explains, “Several large Lalande cell place in series and parallel could have supplied enough voltage and current to power the Pharos light for many hours be­fore any of their elements would have needed replacing. This type of battery needs no external source of electricity to revitalize it. After it has discharged, replacing two of its internal ingredients restores the unit to full capacity.”

The existence of such a battery is not mere speculation but supported by smaller, though fundamentally similar cell batteries found elsewhere in the ancient Near East, most famously, the so-called “Baghdad Battery,” discovered by archaeologist Wilhelm Koenig, during 1938, in Stuttgart, Germany. The earthenware jar was fitted with an asphalt stopper pierced by an iron rod, its lower section surrounded inside by a copper cylinder. When filled with common fruit juice, the device generates two volts of electricity. In 1940, Professor Koenig published a scientific paper on the artifact originally found at Khujut Rabu, just outside Baghdad, and dated to 250 B.C., more than two thousand years before the official invention of the electric battery by Alesandro Volta in the early 19th century. After the Second World War, Willard F. M. Gray of the General Electric High Voltage Laboratory in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, built and tested several reproductions of the Khujut Rabu finds, all of which produced equivalent electrical out-put. Another German researcher, Dr. Arne Eggebrecht, found his duplicates electro-plated selected items. Electro-plating occurs when small electric current is applied to a thin layer of one metal, such as gold, on to the surface of another, i.e., sil­ver. From his experiments, Eggebrecht believes that many classical statuettes and other objects regarded as solid gold are more likely gold-plated lead.

Existence of the “Baghdad Battery” and its companion pieces establishes that at least a fundamental understand­ing of electricity was grasped and applied by the ancients, even in a relative cultural backwater like Khujut Rabu dur­ing the 3rd century B.C. Iran was then ruled by the Parthian Empire, a great military power, but not famous for its scientific sophistication. In any case, the batteries found there show that electrical power was not unknown in classi­cal times, if not before. The “Baghdad Battery” may not have been the beginning, but, rather, close to the end of a technology with roots in the deep past, as indicated by a revealing comparison. The Pharos Lighthouse rose to 280 Old Kingdom Royal Cubits, or 481 feet, the same height of the Great Pyramid. Such a salient relationship was hardly coincidental, demonstrating that both structures, despite the millennia separating their construction, were built ac­cording to the same principles of sacred geometry.

This organizational unity began with all three pyramids of the Giza Plateau. They are linked by the Golden Sec­tion. Rediscovered by Leonardo da Vinci, who provided the name, the Golden Section is a spiral in the canon of an­cient geometry used for the design of sacred architecture. It was valued as the most desirable proportion, because it is expressed in the patterns of natural forms. These include cosmic nebulae, in the ratios between planetary orbits, ani­mal horns, sea mollusks, the formation of the human fetus, in the laws of Mendelian heredity, heliotropism (the movement of flowers following the path of the sun) and whirlpools, together with thousands of other examples ob­served in Nature. It appeared in a nautilus shell, its exterior wall removed to expose the Golden Section spiral inside. This was the Wind Jewel, the personal emblem carried by the Mayas’ Kukulcan and the later Aztecs’ Quetzalcoatl— the “Feathered Serpent,” who long ago brought the principles of civilization to Mexico from his sunken kingdom across the Atlantic Ocean.

Temple was the first to notice that “a shadow cast by the second pyramid, known as the Pyramid of Khafre, upon the Great Pyramid at sunset on 21 December. The shadow, if truncated by a vertical line running up the middle of the south face of the Great Pyramid, does actually form a golden triangle. There is actually a purposeful slight indenta­tion of a few inches in the construction of the side of the pyramid, discovered in measurements made by Petrie. This ‘apothegm’, as geometers call such vertical lines, forms the right angle to transform the solstice shadow into a perfect Golden Triangle.” That this shadow was thrown on the Great Pyramid by Khafre each winter solstice to form “ a per­fect Golden Triangle” can have hardly been fortuitous, and further illustrates that all three pyramids were built si­multaneously as part of a unified plan.

The evidence is overwheming: the ancients possessed a technology in many instances equal to and occasionally more advanced than the vaunted efforts of modern man.

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