Over a hundred years ago, sponge divers discovered a shipwreck in the Aegean Sea that included a curious device called the Antikythera Mechanism which they now believe was the first analog computer ever made. Predating the medieval clock, this was the most advanced device ever made in the ancient world.
Named after Antikythera, the nearby Greek island where the device was discovered, a team of international scientists have spent the past decade learning as much as they can about this mysterious device. Dating back to 60 BC, the Antikythera Mechanism is now believed to be used to predict the color of an eclipse, as well as map and predict astronomical movements of celestial bodies including the five known planets during this time, as well as the stars. The stars mattered to the ancients as this was a big part of their religious beliefs.
Researchers such as University of Toronto astronomy historian Alexander Jones are in awe of this high-tech device. He declares that for the ancient Greeks, this was created because “they were trying to gather a whole range of things that were part of the Greek experience of the cosmos.”
“This was absolutely state of the art in astronomy at the time.”
In 1959 Yale University polymath physicist and science historian Derek de Solla Price declared that the Antikythera Mechanism was the world’s first known computer and documented his theories in Scientific American. Yet, it was not until the past decade that these theories could be proven, Researchers needed more advanced technology to help them examine the dilapidated device.
— Joaquim Baptista (@pxquim) June 15, 2016
“Nothing like this instrument is preserved elsewhere. Nothing comparable to it is known from any ancient scientific text or literary allusion.”
Although the mechanism is now very badly corroded, the international research team has been utilizing modern technology such as new types of X-ray equipment. This is used to bypass the corrosion and obtain clear images of the inscription written on the Antikythera Mechanism. This also assists in determining all of the possible functions of this device. With the new technology, researchers have translated more inscriptions and have uncovered the possibility that there was at least one such additional device created. Now that technology is helping, researchers can read such important information as the newly uncovered 3500-word “manual” informing users what they are looking at when turning a knob or making other such actions. Jones explained how important the new technology was in finally giving the researchers the ability to clearly unlock the secrets of the ancient Greeks.
“Before, we had scraps of the text that was hiding inside these fragments, but there was still a lot of noise. By combining X-ray images with the impressions left on material that had stuck to the original bronze, “it was like a double jigsaw puzzle that we were able to use for a much clearer reading.”
— Evan Kirstel (@evankirstel) June 11, 2016
What is also a huge surprise is that the Antikythera Mechanism predates clocks by centuries. It appears that perhaps the ancient Greeks were not interested in telling time, but instead, they prioritized celestial information such as predicting the color of the eclipse and other planetary information in relation to astrology. Price also pointed out that perhaps more sobering was that at the height of their technological advancement, ancient Greece was about to fall to the Romans. Had this not happened, who is to know how much more technical advancement we would have today.
“It is a bit frightening to know that just before the fall of their great civilization the ancient Greeks had come so close to our age, not only in their thought, but also in their scientific technology.”
The shoebox-sized mechanism was first discovered on a shipwreck on the island of Antikythera, on the Aegean, in 1901. The Antikythera Mechanism is being examined at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece.
[Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images]