The Antikythera Mechanism: History of an Ancient Greek Computer

This is still a pretty new blog, so we don’t have all the data on our readership yet, but I think I can make a couple of assumptions about demographics. Without wanting to get too specific, I surmise that most of you a) live in America, and b) are under the age of 75. Apologies for anyone who isn’t in that; we love you too, but it was important to play the odds.

If you fit into that not-terribly-rare demographic, there are a few things altering your sense of time. For one thing, we live in a terribly young country (if old land) whose most historic cities were founded when the great cities of Europe and Asia were hundreds or thousands of years old. For another thing, you’re used to the impossible speed of technological advancement, where what you owned last year is already outdated and somehow distasteful. What happened yesterday seems a long time ago, a strange effect of our information age. Because of this, when we think of early computers, we probably think of, at most, the Apple II. That would be off, but only by a few thousand years.

The first computer
It may not look like much, but it is one of the most extraordinary artifacts in history. Image from wikimedia.org

A mystery from ancient times found in the deep

In 1900, Greek divers found an ancient shipwreck in shallow waters. Old shipwrecks, while stipulating that they probably constituted at best a very bad day for the ancient numberless multitudes drowned in them, are invaluable to researchers and extremely valuable to scavengers. This particular one brought coins, statues, other sculptures- and one very weird, almost terrifying device.

At first, no one even knew that it was something. Rust had corroded it and the sea had transformed it into so it looked like a rock. It wasn’t until a couple of years later, that with what must have been one of the great surprises in archeological history, it was discovered to be an actual item. It had gears, but was clearly older than any known clock. It was too rusted and decomposed to work, but it clearly wasn’t ornamental. It had some kind of function, but what it was baffled the people of the time. After all, it was too early to even predict that this was a crude and early computer: no one was even using computers yet.

It was a mystery for many decades. It wasn’t possible to really dig into it, as it was too rusty and corroded. All that people could see was that “the device seemed to have a range of interlocking gears made of bronze and a hand crank to give a turning movement to the geared mechanism, plus a display that showed information about the moon, sun and planets against a background of stars.” Decades of careful cleaning, followed by the ability to use radio imagery figured out what it was: a device to record the movement of the stars. It was so advanced, that if it was wound up it could tell you where the stars would be for any given day, and was also used to predict eclipses.

Is it an actual computer?

This was obviously nothing short of amazing, but was it a computer as we know it? Obviously, it couldn’t connect to the internet or play Oregon Trail, but it was a device used to mechanically enhance our intelligence, which, at its most basic, is all that a modern computer does. No one could just guess or know what the stars were going to do or the phases of the moon. You might be able to figure it out longhand, in the same way that people might be able to do the equations that constitute a modern computer’s thinking power. This just made it much faster.

It’s incredible to think about (some scientists even refer to it as being more valuable than The Mona Lisa). Thousands of years ago, as early as 200 BC, mankind began to imagine ways that we could figure out the universe. People saw its vastness, and weren’t reduced to making up stories to explain it- they realized that with our brains, we could do so much more.

It isn’t just that someone thought this- someone (or, more likely, many people) created this, using knowledge that they had learned, and some inherent and irreplaceable genius. This was actually made, in 200 BC. It’s like finding out that a group of people had an interstellar portal next door- that’s how far ahead of their time they were.

At least, that’s what we assume. The history of computers shows us that nothing happens in a vacuum. People learn from each other, and discoveries flow into each other. People learn and advance. It’s possible there were many ancient computers, now all lost. It’s also possible that was the only one, found by the merest chance on the bottom of a silent sea. It’s possible there is more in the shipwreck to explain this wonder. (and crews are actively looking now).

It’s one of the greatest mysteries in world history: how advanced were the ancients? Was this a one-off stroke of genius? Or were there many? And wouldn’t either be the most incredible thing you’ve ever heard?

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