Antikythera Mechanism: the world’s first computer

Hyperaxion Oct 9, 2020

The Antikythera mechanism is considered the first analog “computer” in history, and since its discovery, it has puzzled scientists and researchers.

This computer was submerged for more than 2,000 years off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera before it was found, and although researchers still don’t know for sure who built it, what exactly it was used for, when it was built and where, some facts are helping to decipher these mysteries.

1. What is the Antikythera Mechanism and what was it used for?

The Antikythera mechanism
The Antikythera mechanism. (Credit: Marsyas).

The Antikythera mechanism is the world’s first analog computer. It was built more than 2,000 years ago and used by the ancient Greeks to map the movement of the Sun, Moon, and planets, to predict lunar and solar eclipses, and even when the next Olympic Games would be.

The device could also add, multiply, divide, and subtract. Its calendar was based on the time between one full moon until the next, and it also allowed the user to predict the seasons, which would have been useful for agriculture.

Eclipse cycles were discovered by the ancient Babylonians, and with that knowledge, the inventor of the Antikythera mechanism included two dials that rotate to show lunar and solar eclipses.

But the most sophisticated thing the mechanism did was the lunar calculations! It could find out the period of the Moon at any given time and model its elliptical orbit.

2. How was the Antikythera Mechanism discovered?

Antikythera Island
Antikythera Island.

At the turn of the 20th century, a group of fishermen found the wreckage of a Roman ship and its treasures while diving off the coast of the Antikythera Island.

Two years later, in 1902, Spirydon Stais visited the museum that housed the treasures of the Antikythera ship and then carried out his underwater excavation.

Among the coins, sculptures, and pottery, a rusty green metal object caught his eye. It was a piece of the old computer, which became known as the Antikythera mechanism.

3. The Antikythera Mechanism went unnoticed for 75 years

The bronze-and-wood object was found along with a shipment of marble, coins, glass, and pottery in 1900. As all other artifacts drew more attention, the mechanism was ignored until 1951.

It was only in 1974 that the first publication on the Antikythera mechanism was made, by the physicist and historian Derek de Solla Price. But Price died in 1983, leaving his work unfinished and without an answer on how the device really worked.

4. How old is the Antikythera Mechanism?

The instrument was dated to about 85 B.C., but recent studies suggest that it may be even older, around 150 B.C. The cargo ship in which it was found is believed to have sunk around 60 B.C.

5. It is not clear why it was on the ship

An astrophysicist from the University of Athens, Xenophon Moussas, theorized that the ship in which the mechanism was found could be going to Rome as part of a parade by Emperor Julius Caesar in the first century B.C.

Another theory says that the ship was carrying goods looted by Roman general Sulla in 87-86 B.C. At that same time, the famous Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero mentioned a mechanical device called “Sphere of Archimedes”, used to show how the Sun, Moon, and planets moved in relation to the Earth.

More recent research, however, suggests that the ship could be on its way to Rome from Turkey. The ship’s route has been difficult to track because the Aegean Sea was an important and busy shipping area at the time.

6. The mechanism was so technologically advanced that nothing surpassed it until 1500 A.D.

Consisting of at least 30 bronze gears in a wooden box that was the size of a shoebox, the Antikythera mechanism was highly advanced for its time. By turning a crank, the user could move forward or backward in time.

The crank was used to move the gears and rotate a series of dials and rings on which are inscribed the signs of the Greek zodiac and the days of the Egyptian calendar.

It seems that the information to build such a mechanism has been lost over time, perhaps because it was a very complex or expensive device to create. Similar astronomical clocks did not reappear in Europe until the 14th century.

Since inventions like this don’t usually come out of nowhere, many researchers think that we can still find older precursors at archaeological sites someday.

7. The planetary motion shown by the mechanism was accurate for 500 years

The mechanism includes pointers to Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, all visible in the sky, as well as a spinning ball that shows the phases of the Moon.

Although some parts of the mechanism are missing, the text on its front plate confirms that the planetary motion was modeled mathematically using numerous complex gears.

8. The Antikythera Mechanism was the world’s first computer

Full-size replica of the Antikythera Mechanism.
Full-size replica of the Antikythera Mechanism.

Since long before the invention of the digital computer, there have been analog computers. These types of computers varied in their functions, ranging from slide rule to devices that could predict tides.

The Antikythera mechanism, which was designed to calculate dates and predict astronomical phenomena, was therefore the world’s first analog computer.

9. It has a built-in instruction manual

Inscriptions on a bronze panel on the back of the mechanism suggest that the inventor left instructions on how to use it or an explanation of what the user was seeing.

The inscription, which is in the Koine Greek dialect, mentions the cycles, dials, and some of the mechanism’s functions.

Although the text does not specifically say how to use it and assumes some prior knowledge of astronomy, it does provide labels for the person who is analyzing the mechanism.

10. Nobody knows for sure where the mechanism was used

Although many of its functions have been discovered, how and where they were used is still unknown.

Researchers think it could have been used in a temple or school, but it could easily have been commissioned for a wealthy family.

Without other comparable artifacts or explanatory inscriptions, we still don’t know who could have used this object or for what purpose.

11. But we are finding out where it was made

The use of the Koine dialect in the numerous inscriptions indicates that this was probably a Greek creation, which was geographically large at the time.

The festival display mentions the Olympics in central Greece, Naa in northwest Greece, and Halieia on the island of Rhodes.

The most recent analysis of the inscriptions, by classicist Alexander Jones and his colleagues, suggests that the mechanism could track at least 42 different events on the calendar.

Researchers say the device was probably made on the island of Rhodes, and although there is only one device found, they think it is not the only one.

More than a dozen pieces of classical literature, dating from the period between 300 B.C. and 500 A.D., make references to devices like the one found in Antikythera.

12. For the Greeks, the device also predicted the future

Jones and colleagues also found that the mechanism showed color, size, and winds associated with eclipses.

The Greeks believed that the characteristics of an eclipse were related to good and bad omens. With technology capable of predicting the characteristics of eclipses, the user likely believed that he could predict what the future could hold.

13. Where can I see the Antikythera Mechanism?

The replicas of this ancient computer are on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece.

(Credit: Antikythera – Anticythère – Αντικύθηρα – 安提凯希拉).

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Antikythera mechanism


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