sea stories: Archimedes, a cargo of amphorae, and a computer to guide them

We may not give enough credit to sailors for the world we know today. Poets and military strategists view the sea differently, but it was seamen with a knowledge of tides, winds and ocean currents that gave rise to empires. Although the romance of “iron” men putting to sea in wooden ships have inspired the likes of Homer and Richard Henry Dana, seafarers had to understand navigation by the Sun, Moon and stars to return to port. In time, not just merchants and fishermen went to sea, but navies deployed to protect trade routes and ferry warriors to far-off colonies. History is filled with the rise and fall of empires, each with inventions and knowledge that seem to be lost and reinvented in time by successive civilizations. Some that have survived and pulled from the muck of millennia suggest we today aren’t the first to think of certain technologies but only ones who have managed to expand on them.

While sailors today use GPS, LORAN, and other navigational aids, it was invention of the sextant in the Seventeenth Century that helped explorers determine that they would get to their next port in reasonable time. Or were they just the latest civilization to rediscover what the Myceneans, Hellenes (Greeks), Romans, and Ottoman sailors had invented time and again? After all, a little more than two centuries before Isaac Newton, Europeans still believed the Earth was flat. Two thousand years earlier, Greek seafarers may have benefitted from wisdom about the movement of Earth and sky that Copernicus, Galileo, Magellan and others subsequently “discovered”. A prolific thinker and inventor more than two centuries BCE, Archimedes, may have contributed to ocean navigation as well as an irrigation device in use still today in Asia and Africa.

the Antikythera mechanism

For 2400 years, a certain Greek shipwreck has lain at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. Discovered in 1901, it was an object recovered from that wreck that technology, a century later, has revealed how wily the Greeks really were. The so-called Antikythera Mechanism is a mechanical computer that came with instructions, to accurately determine the position of celestial bodies at any given time. A BBC article and documentary provides a fascinating look at an object that decades ago was just an odd lump of corroded metal pulled from the Mediterranean. Now we understand that it was a sophisticated mechanism at a time when many still believed in temperamental gods and sea monsters. A thousand years before that ship put to sea, the Bronze Age eruption of Thera all but destroyed the Minoans maritime empire. Before the classical Greeks built towns on the coast of Spain, the Minoans traded with the Pharaohs. Romans who conquered the Greeks, navigated from Britain to Turkey and Egypt, built enduring roads and channeled water in aqueducts still being used today. Academics can only imagine the vast sum of knowledge in the ancient library at Alexandria destroyed by fire. We only have fragments referenced by other ancient writers.

Two thousand years from now, what will be rediscovered by sailors and explorers in the Forty-First Century? It may be some future sailor who dredges up a corroded iPhone from the flooded remains of a coastal city.