In the 20th century Swiss designers became famous for their style of design. Sometimes called the International Typographic style, it was renowned for its asymmetric layouts, precision, simplicity and objectivity. This movement was primarily in the field of graphic design but was not contained to that field. In the past centuries the art disciplines were not as specialized as they are today and it was not that uncommon for a sculptor to paint or for a graphic designer to be a furniture or watch designer. One such multidisciplinary designer of the Swiss movement was a man by the name of Max Bill.
Max Bill’s resume includes work in the fields of architecture, painting, typeface design, and industrial design. Born in Switzerland in 1908, Bill studied at the famous Bauhaus in 1924. Bill had a long and fruitful career, and in the 1950s he became one of the leading writers in the Modernist Movement. I had to do a report and presentation on this particular designer when I was working on my BFA. I remember standing up in front of the Design Theory and Practice class and expounding on Bill’s work in industrial design explaining that his emphasis was on designing clarity and exact proportions. The example that I used to illustrate this point was a line of watches that Max Bill designed for Junghans, a company which is still selling watches based on his original design nearly 30 years after BIll’s death in 1994.
That is just the thing about watchmaking. We are talking about a device that is meant to track time itself. To accomplish its task every part must be dialed in with exact precision. A single tooth on a gear that is too wide and the entire thing becomes dysfunctional. Have you ever had the chance to look at the inner workings of a timekeeping device? The balance of pins, wheels, and gears is like a tiny universe in and of itself. It is reminiscent of the spinning of celestial bodies out in space. When we really consider the purpose of timekeeping it is just that, to track the movements of the earth around the sun that creates our days and nights. The reflection of the macro universe at this microscale is especially amazing when we think about how long watches have been around. Peter Henlein invented the first watch in Germany in the year 1505. That was before industrialization, before automation and electricity or batteries. For centuries watchmakers were artists and engineers designing their work from page to finished products, and all done by hand. Take a moment to think about what an accomplishment that really is. No really, take a moment and give the watchmakers of history well-deserved credit.
In the 20th century, Swiss designers became famous for their style of design. Sometimes called the International Typographic Style, it was renowned for its asymmetric layouts, precision, simplicity and objectivity. This movement was primarily in the field of graphic design but was not contained to that field. In the past centuries, the art disciplines were not as specialized as they are today and it was not that uncommon for a sculptor to paint or for a graphic designer to be a furniture or watch designer. One such multidisciplinary designer of the Swiss movement was a man by the name of Max Bill.
The feature that makes watches work and many other mechanical features of our world are gears. These interlocking toothed objects make incredible things possible. Gears power bicycles, and gears control watches and gears make it possible to move huge objects over great distances. Gears are everywhere in the modern world and have made it possible for me to even use that phrase “modern world” but gears are an ancient technology as shown by an enigmatic device recovered from the seas of Greece.
The Antikythera Mechanism really is a wonder of the ancient world and has pushed the boundary of everything that we once believed we knew about ancient technology. The device was discovered along with a wealth of other objects from an ancient Greek shipwreck that was accidentally uncovered by scuba divers in 1900 CE. The wreckage, dating back about 2000, was discovered off the island of Antikythera and hence has become the Antikythera Shipwreck and the device the Antikythera Mechanism. This mess of ancient batter bronze mystified scholars at its finding and it spent decades forgotten in a museum basement simply for the fact that no one could figure out what it even was. The device itself is fragmentary and much work had to be done to reconstruct what it would have looked like in its original state. What was amazing about it was the gears that were visible on the outside of the device which at this time are the earliest known example of gears. It wasn’t until x-ray technology was applied to the various pieces of the device that the true craftsmanship and complexity was uncovered. Through analysis of the components, a study of the inscriptions on the surface and a lot of mechanical insight a consensus has been reached and we now know that the Antikythera Mechanism is the earliest known example of an analogue computer.
It is a complicated and beautiful system that works on the same basic principle as clocks with gears and wheels. Now of course I do not mean computer in the same way that my PC or my smartphone is a computer. This is a computer in the simplest form, data gets put into the device and it gives data back out for the user’s benefit. The mechanism was meant as a sailing aid capable of modeling the position of the planets and stars so that one could position themself on the ocean. It even had a counter telling how long until the next Olympic games. Just as the clocks of the middle ages were in a sense modeled after the universe to track the flow of time the Antykethera Mechanism also picks up on the underlying systems and becomes a small representation of the cosmos.
Sadly for the Greeks however we are no longer able to give them credit with the inventions of mechanically interacting gears. Rather an older example of gears has been uncovered and in a very unexpected context.
In 2013 scientific magazines and newspapers made an announcement about gears being discovered in a biological creature. The Juvenile Issus Leafhopper, an insect found all over gardens and shrubbery of Europe, has put human ingenuity to shame by being the first discovered example of interlocking gears in a living creature. Known by its proper name the Issus Cleopatraus uses sets of interlocking gears in its hind legs to aid in jumps that can subject its body to up to capable of a velocity of about 4 meters per second in just two-thousandths of a second the jump of the creature pushes its body through forces nearly 200 times the force of gravity. This ability requires precise timing of the legs, and thus two mechanical gears at the base of its hind legs are used to exert the exact same force at the exact time.
Now to the reader of this I have to pose a question, or perhaps even a challenge, why exactly were scholars justified in their inference that the Antikythera Mechanism was designed for a purpose? Why was it a logical assumption that it was worth studying and uncovering its purpose rather than just seeing it as a random clump of metal that was produced through natural, if not yet known natural processes. What exactly was different about the Mechanism as opposed to any given random rock that was found next to the shipwreck?
There is a kind of obviousness to the Antikythera Mechanism that screams “designed for a purpose.” Features that help this obviousness include it being composed of metal, which we know from common experience is used in human crafting. Of course the presence of gears is a strong tell as well. Its overall delicateness and precision of form speaks to its origin as a designed object. The conclusion that it was designed is very strong in this example. So strong that it is almost beyond words to try and explain the conclusion.
Now let us take this same frame of mind and this same challenge but bring it to the Issus Leafhopper. The overwhelming and stonch conclusion by scientists is as if to say “Wow how incredible this creature has mechanical components to it that we originally only found in human designed technology! Therefore it was a totally random accident due to millions of years of unguided naturalism.” Now please don’t hear me saying that I am a young earther, or that I don’t believe all life on earth has a common ancestor. Those issues are not in my mind right now. What I am saying is that as someone who believes in God, the cosmic designer what we are uncovering about life is completely consistent with what we would find if there were a designer. Everytime scientists uncover the splendor, complexity and apparent purpose in the stars, in nature, or in our own very bodies there is this awkward moment of awe from naturalists followed by a shake of the head and a “yes but of course it was all an accident.” Such a tension does not exist in my perspective because Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1 together tell us that God created all that exists and He created them with his Logos (reason, logic).
Readers with a keen eye will know that my inspiration for writing this post was the famous watchmaker analogy made by English clergyman and theologian William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity.
Next time you find yourself alone and amazed by the complexity of the natural world I hope you will open up your mind to stop and ask, “but why is it like that?”
It is [God] who sits above the circle of the earth,
And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers [to Him.]
Max Bill Biography
Max Bill Watches
Incredible Artisan Japanese Watchmaker
Mysteries of the Antikythera Mechanism – NY Times
Tiny Gears Leaping Liftoffs – Scientific American
Most convincing argument for design? Fine-Tuning
William Paley’s Natural Theology on Amazon