A 2,000-year-old computer? Researchers were scratching their heads when they discovered the Antikythera Mechanism 120 years ago too. But, it can't possibly be a computer... right? Well, decades of research have said otherwise. The Antikythera Mechanism is one of the most mysterious and fascinating ancient inventions that the modern world has stumbled upon.
The beautifully preserved artifact was discovered in a shipwreck in 1901 and baffled researchers all the way until the late 1990s and early 2000s, when more sophisticated e-ray and CT imaging techniques allowed them to reveal the mechanisms of the corroded device. This ancient invention paints a very different picture of the ancient Greeks, giving us insight into ways in which they may have been far more advanced than we thought. However, we are getting ahead of ourselves.
As we have discussed before, there are some ancient inventions out there that have left the modern world dumbfounded. You might have heard that old adage that suggests that necessity is the mother of invention. However, a selection of great ancient minds and civilizations have gone far beyond what was required. Today, we will take a look at some of the most important facts surrounding the Antikythera Mechanism.
1. Yes, it is a computer….sort of
Let's get the most obvious fact out of the way. The Antikythera Mechanism can be thought of as an analog computer. At first glance, you might not think this historical artifact is anything special. Nevertheless, on further inspection, you can see sophisticated rusted gears that were certainly functional at some point.
What was its purpose? One theory is that that ancient device was used as a type of timepiece, based on a geocentric view of the universe. However, instead of hours and minutes, it displayed celestial time and had separate hands for the Sun, the Moon, and each of the five planets visible to the naked eye (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). A rotating ball showed the phase of the Moon and dials on the back acted as a calendar and showed the timing of lunar and solar eclipses. Inscriptions explained which stars rose and set on any particular date.
All of this on a device that was about the size of a mantel clock.
2. The Antikythera Mechanism was found in a Roman-era shipwreck
How was the Antikythera Mechanism found? It was discovered on a sunken Roman-era shipwreck near Antikythera island, situated between mainland Greece and Crete. The name Antikythera means "opposite of Kythera." The divers who found it were out looking for sponges. The ancient shipwreck provided researchers with the "computer", along with a treasure trove of well preserved ancient artifacts.
3. Perhaps the wreckage site was cursed
The Roman-Era wreckage was submerged about 150 feet down (45 mt). When one of the original divers came up to tell the rest of his mates of his discovery; a wreckage that included corpses, artifacts, and horses, his friends thought he was hallucinating and had lost it. They wrote off his tales of discovery as "raptures of the deep," and the result of too much nitrogen in the breathing mix piped into the diving helmet. Eventually, they would be convinced to believe their friend. But the diving expedition turned out to be dangerous, one diver who explored the site would get paralyzed, and another would die.
4. It took researchers about 75 years to decipher the mechanism of the Antikythera Mechanism
Researchers initially had no idea what the device was meant for or how it worked. Much of the technology was obscured by corrosion and there was more excitement surrounding the marble, coins, and pottery from the wreck. Beginning in around 1951, physicist and historian Derek de Solla Price studied the device in some detail, but unfortunately, he passed away in 1983 without determining how the device worked. X-ray images taken up to that point were difficult to interpret, and most mainstream historians ignored the artifact. The Antikythera Mechanism would not be appreciated for what it was until the late 1990s and early 2000s.
5. It can be thought of as the first computer
The earliest analog "computers" were mechanical devices built for a particular task. They could not be programmed and had no screens or components that we might think of as being part of a computer. The earliest known analog computer is the astrolabe. These were first built in Greece sometime in the first century BC. They had pointers and scales, combined with a complex arrangement of bronze gears to predict the motion of the sun, planets, and stars.
What makes the Antikythera mechanism so significant is how much more complex and sophisticated it was compared to other analog devices of the time. In fact, it would be around 1,000 years before another analog device of a similar sophistication would emerge.
6. And, it was 1000 years ahead of its time
Researchers have taken the time to imagine what the device may have looked like and have speculated on what the ancient computer might have been used for. It is believed that the device consisted of around 30 bronze gears organized inside a wooden container a little larger than a shoebox.
In fact, it may be more accurate to think of it as an antique wooden clock. Like a clock, the case would have had a large circular face with rotating hands. There was a knob or handle on the side, for winding the mechanism. As the knob turned, trains of interlocking gearwheels drove at least seven hands at various speeds.
Inscriptions explained which stars rose and set on any particular date. The pointers on the front face don’t survive, but an inscription suggests they carried colored balls representing Mars and the Sun.
How was such a special and powerful device like this lost through time? There are no records of the device. But inscriptions on the device may hint at where it was made.
The calendar on the mechanism uses names for the months that were used in Corinth and in northwest Greece, and a dial that indicates the timing of major festivals, lists Naa, a festival held in northwest Greece, and Halieia, held on the island of Rhodes. Scholars speculate that the mechanism may have been on its way north from Rhodes when it was lost at sea. According to the Roman historian Cicero, the philosopher Posidonius had a workshop in Rhodes that produced a similar device.
7. The Inventor of trigonometry may have also had a hand in creating the device
Yes, that's right, Hipparchus may have had a hand in creating the Antikythera mechanism. The ancient astronomer lived on Rhodes and was one of the first thinkers to speculate that the Earth may revolve around the sun. Hipparchus is considered as the founder of trigonometry. He created the first trigonometric table when attempting to solve problems related to spheres. He is considered the founder of trigonometry. But he is most famous for his discovery of the precession of the equinoxes.
The eclipse cycle represented on the device is Babylonian in origin and Hipparchus is known for having blended Babylonian predictions with Greek. Maybe it was Hipparchus, or someone associated with his school, who worked out the math behind the device.
8. The Antikythera mechanism was used for more than just navigation
The mechanism was used to track the lunar calendar, predict eclipses, and to chart the position and phases of the moon. However, the power of this ancient computer did not stop there. It was also used to track important local events and festivals like the Olympics. It was extremely complex.
9. It even came with an instruction manual
The Antikythera mechanism apparently came with its own instruction manual.
It is believed that the device was created in some type of family workshop. It has been suggested that the bronze panel at the back of the mechanism included instructions. Written in Koine Greek, the instructions likely included either instructions on how the device works or an explanation of what the user was seeing. However, it is believed that any user would need to have had prior knowledge of astronomy and astronomical devices.
10. Yet, we are not sure who would use the mechanism
Who would need such a device? And, shouldn't there be more of them floating around or at least well documented? There are many theories for who actually used the device. It has been suggested that sailors, scholars, or a very rich family could have used of the device. Others believe that the Antikythera mechanism may have been used at a school or a religious temple.
11. The Antikythera mechanism was impressively accurate
How accurate? It is believed that the planetary motion in the mechanism was accurate to one degree in 500 years. As mentioned above, the device included an astrological face that includes pointers for the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, as well as the Moon. The mechanical gears in the ancient computer-modeled planetary motion mathematically.
What do you think about the Antikythera mechanism? Do you think there is more to this story? For more impressive engineering feats, be sure to stop by here.