Running like clockwork: the beauty and invention of machines

A few examples of our fascination with intricate mechanisms and time machines. Photo: Wristwatch, Municipal Museum, Nove Mesto nad Metuji, Czech Republic. Credit Kozuch via wikimedia commons

UNITED KINGDOM, August 29, 2013 – As a child, clockwork toys delighted me. You wound a key and wheels would spin and send a tin mouse or car scuttling across the floor.
Unfortunately my curiosity usually resulted in the toy being taken to pieces to see how it worked. Sadly, I never quite mastered putting them back together.

From Leonardo Da Vinci’s diagrams of flying machines, tanks and submarines, through the madcap contraptions of William Heath Robinson to the genius of ‘father of the computer’ Charles Babbage’s difference engine, machines made of cogs, gears and springs fascinate me far more than the most ingenious electronic or computer driven gadget ever could.

But first, there was the Antikythera mechanism, a scientific computer built between 150 and 100 BC.

The device was discovered in 1900 as part of a shipwreck that sank on its way to Rome, in the 1st century BC, between Crete and the island of Antikythera in the Mediterranean.

The device was salvaged in 1900 from a ship that sank en route to Rome, in the 1st century BC, between Crete and the island of Antikythera in the Mediterranean.

Made of bronze, it may have had as many as 72 gears originally, each one hand cut with between 15 and 223 triangular teeth. These were the key to discovering the mechanism’s various functions. It is based on theories of astronomy and mathematics developed by Greek astronomers and may have been built by the Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor and astronomer, Archimedes. Nothing like as complex would be seen until the 14th century


SEE RELATED: The Music of Science: Exploring astronomy and space through music


It has full instructions engraved upon it in Greek.

Driven by a simple hand crank, now lost, it could calculate the 365 day Egyptian year and could compensate for the extra quarter day in the solar year. It marked the date and positions of the Sun and Moon, showed the Moon’s phases, the Greek signs of the Zodiac and it likely also displayed the positions of Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn.

The device could calculate 19 year Metonic cycle of Moon phases, the 76 year Callippic cycle (four Metonic cycles) and the 4 year Olympic cycle (four games took place in two and four year cycles) the 18 year 11 days Saros eclipse cycle and the 54 year 33 day Exeligmos or triple saros cycle.

No music better conveys the relentless movement of machines than in George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique.

Machines can make life so easy. Imagine life without your car, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, microwave. No trains, planes or buses or computers. But how often do you curse those same inventions when things go wrong, or when you stuck on the phone listening to musak or holding a conversation with an automated voice.

The double edged sword of the machine age has never been more brilliantly portrayed than by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. I think of this whenever I feel that I am battling with technology and losing.

I am a huge fan of Rube Goldberg machines. The more complex and convoluted the chain reaction constructed to carry out a simple task, the better. None more so than in this music video by OK Go for their single This Too Shall Pass

And then in May 2006, just in time for my birthday, The Sultan’s Elephant created by The Royal de Luxe theatre company, came to London. It began when a rocket ship crashed in Waterloo Place. Over the next four days the story of the Sultan, his time travelling elephant and the girl from his dreams unfolded against the backdrop of London’s streets and landmarks.

Of all the machines in the world, without doubt my favorite has to be Cern’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) the largest science experiment ever undertaken. I even have a massive poster of the Atlas detector above the piano in my dining doom. Here is Professor Bran Cox giving a TED talk back in 2008, just before the LHC went live.

Since then the LHC has discovered several previously unobserved particles including the long sought Higgs boson which proves the existence of the Higgs field that gives mass to the particles that make up atoms and even stars, and confirming that the Standard Model of physics is essentially correct.

Our love/hate relationship with machines will go one as long we have the resources to build and power them, but for me nothing will ever beat the elegance, intricate beauty and craftsmanship of clockwork, as here, in the Corpus Clock in Cambridge


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Jenny Winder

Jenny Winder is a British science writer for SEN - the Space Exploration Network,  specialising in astronomy, physics and space exploration.

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