The Antikythera Device

Birthdays are a natural time to put one’s current moment into the perspective of history. This past week I’m realizing just how much history has slipped by in so little time. I guess all I can really ask is to live an eventful life, so I’m grateful. Just a single yet potent example of this is the world of electronic devices. How this world has changed in my forty-four years!

Some of you may know that I work at Microsoft. I was raised in Utah — WordPerfect and Novell country — so one might think I’d be something of a traitor, but I’ve never really been on that tribal bandwagon. For me it has always been more of a technology and thought-tribe thing than a corporate tribe thing. I feel connected to the ideas and the people who turn ideas into life-impacting reality and not to the companies that finance them. Yet these past six years at Microsoft have left me with a growing attachment to the company akin to that of my natural family. It certainly helped my sense of loyalties that I’ve been working on software for Apple computers. Yes, Microsoft makes software for all sorts of devices … ’cause some of you are always surprised to hear this, almost to the point of disbelief. These two companies, Apple and Microsoft, are more closely wedded in purpose and method than most are aware. But this is all just meandering thoughts and not where I’d planned to go today.

The decade of my birth saw many technological advances, not the least of which was the transition from metallic fonts set of molten metal in a fiery font foundry to photographic and electronic imaging of industrial typography. This is a conceptual and technological jump with many complex pieces and a long history of development, but it arrived as a practicality in the first years of my life. In the early nineteen-seventies I sat on my great-grandmother’s lap and counted cars as they drove by, while images of Apollo moon missions streamed effortlessly from a black and white television. This woman who attended me had walked across the American plains as a child, party to a pioneer wagon company. In 1983 I was writing my school papers on an IBM Selectric typewriter with a bottle of white-out at my side, and by 1993 I owned my own personal computer, a Gateway 2000 DX with 8 megabytes of Random Access Memory and a 250 megabyte hard-drive — smoking hot at the time, and was authoring text with all the miracles of electronic software. That same year I purchased a copy of the book, The Whole Internet, which promised to be a guide to connecting to a bunch of other computers and catalog of everything to be found on the network … and it was exactly that. The year 1993 was much more eventful than all of this; it was my first full year with Laurie, my wife. Hello, darling. I love you.

Now most of you have been around long enough to know just how things have changed since 1993 so I’ll save some time and skip right to the point: holy hell, have things changed or what?

This week I picked-up my first so-called “smart phone,” a Samsung Focus running Microsoft’s new mobile operating system, Windows Phone 7. This device has vastly more computing power than the systems onboard the command module for those Apollo missions back in my beginning. It can contain more textual, audio and photographic material than I can fit into every bookcase in my house and yet this is only the most minuscule part of what it can access and present to me as I sit on my throne — all the libraries and museums of the world, and more. This device allows me to communicate in real-time with hundreds of people and do so in many ways and contexts. It is a truly beautiful and awe-inspiring piece of technology which appears to spring from a computerized virtual shopping experience on an internet that has become incomprehensibly large, then land effortlessly via FedEx over-night air service in the palm of my hand.

This small device represents all of this in a way that tempts us to think of it as simple and obvious. Yet, on my 44th Birthday, I’m getting the feeling that my life has witnessed things truly miraculous. I wish I could share this moment with my great-grandmother. I imagine that she’d say: “Yes, of course. It only appears to be a miracle because you cannot see all the ages of human progress contained within it. Open your eyes, boy.”

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  • The ImageThe Antikythera Mechanism is a device designed to calculate astronomical positions. Found in an ancient Greek sea wreck, it is a surprisingly sophisticated device believed to have been built around 150–100 BCE. This image cropped from the full image available at
  • Resources – Special thanks to my parents, my grand-parents, and to all those who came before. You have wrought miracles.
  • About - Cipher on a Wall is a weekly column and forum here on Doves & Serpents which explores the realm of mind, memories, and dreams. You can find an introductory post for Cipher on a Wall here and a full archive of posts here. My name is Matt, and I’ll be your host for the duration.