THE ANTIKYTHERA MECHANISM
This remarkable mechanical device that is often described as the World’s first analogue computer was retrieved by sponge divers off the coast of Antikythera in or around 1900AD. Scientists all agree that it is real and that it dates from some time during the 2nd century BC making it well over 2,000 years old.
It comprises of a complex system of dials, gears and cogs of extraordinary precision. Experts agree that it represents a standard of production that would not be seen again until the rise of complex clocks and clockwork in the 18th century. After decades of research the current thinking is that it was used as an astronomy calculator to predict and measure the movement of the planets in relationship to the Sun, Earth and the Moon.
For decades after its original discovery the importance of the find was overlooked until archaeologists and modern scientist began to appreciate the significance of such early mechanical sophistication. Since then it has been x-rayed many times using evermore advanced equipment. Working reconstructions have been made and entire research groups established to unlock the secrets of its manufacture and its purpose. Its existence has challenged many preconceived ideas regarding the technological abilities of the ancient civilisations. The Antikythera Mechanism currently on display in the Hellenic Museum in Athens, Greece.
The unique bronze-and-wood object was found with a shipload of marble, coins, glassware, and pottery in 1900. Since all the other artifacts were more apparently worthy of conservation, the mechanism was ignored until 1951. After an additional two decades of study, the first publication on the Antikythera mechanism was made in 1974 by physicist and historian Derek de Solla Price. But Price’s work was unfinished when he died in 1983, without having figured out how the device actually worked.
Since long before the invention of the digital computer you are undoubtedly reading this on, there have been analog computers. These types of computers range from mechanical aids like a slide rule to a device that can predict the tides. The Antikythera mechanism, which was designed to calculate dates and predict astronomical phenomena, has therefore been called the earliest analog computer.
IT WAS SO TECHNOLOGICALLY ADVANCED, NOTHING SURPASSED IT FOR CLOSE TO 1500 YEARS.
Consisting of at least 30 bronze gears in a wooden container that was only the size of a shoebox, the clockwork mechanism was highly advanced for its time. By turning a hand-crank, the user could move forward or backward in time. The crank made the gears move and rotate a series of dials and rings on which there are inscriptions and annotations of Greek zodiac signs and Egyptian calendar days. It seems that the information to build such a mechanism was lost through time, perhaps because it was a specialty device or expensive to create. Similar astronomical clocks didn’t reappear in Europe until the 14th century. Since inventions like this do not usually come from nothing, though, many researchers think that we may yet find older precursors in an archaeological context some day.
Writing on a bronze panel at the back of the mechanism suggests the inventor left either instructions for how to work it or an explanation of what the user was seeing. The inscription, which is in Koine Greek (the most common form of the ancient language), mentions the cycles, dials, and some of the functions of the mechanism. While the text doesn’t specifically tell someone how to use it, and assumes some amount of prior knowledge of astronomy, it provides written-out labels for the person looking at the mechanism.
The mechanism includes hands or pointers for Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, all of which are easily visible in the sky, as well as a rotating ball that showed the phases of the Moon. The parts that work these planetary pointers are gone, but text on the front plate of the mechanism confirms, according to Jones and his team, that the planetary motion was modeled mathematically using numerous complex gears—and that it was highly accurate.