In April 1900, divers exploring the sea near the Greek island of Antikythera came upon a shipwreck and made a remarkable discovery that has since been hailed as one of the greatest wonders of the ancient world. Among the wreckage was a compact mass of corroded bronze embedded in rock that subsequently lay in a museum for the next two years until archaeologist Valerios Stais discovered it contained gear wheels.
Initially, the assemblage of gears was believed to be some type of clock or calendar, but it’s now clear that this device is actually the first analog computer to be made by mankind. As a result, the Antikythera Mechanism is without doubt the most advanced machine to have survived from the ancient world, and predates the first clocks produced by the European during the Middle Ages by at least 1,500 years. As Professor Alexander Jones based at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York, explains:
“With the exception of the Antikythera Mechanism, all the ancient and early medieval geared devices relied only on conventional engagements of toothed gears, which scale up or down rates of motion but can’t add, subtract, or periodically modify rates. It was only with the astronomical clocks made in Europe in the late Middle Ages that these other devices reappeared.”
Identifying the Antikythera Mechanism
The Antikythera Mechanism is believed to date back to 60 BC and to have been made by the Ancient Greeks because of where it was located in the Aegean Sea. The realization that the mechanism was more than just a clock came in 1959 when Yale physicist and scientific historian Derek de Solla Price declared that the gadget was an early computer. While many believed his hypothesis was plausible, technology was not yet advanced enough to fully study the Antikythera Mechanism to determine if he was correct.
An In-Depth Look
Recently, a team of scientists had the chance to finally take an in-depth look at the Antikythera Mechanism to assess the validity of Derek de Solla Price’s hypothesis. Using CT scans and a state-of-the-art scanning technology called polynomial textual mapping, the researchers thoroughly examined the Antikythera Mechanism, and after analyzing 3,500 Greek characters on the device, then published their findings in the scientific journal Amagest.
Here are some of the discoveries made by the team:
– The Antikythera Mechanism is made up of a complex network of dials, pointers and other minute features. The cover of the mechanism included a number of markings that have been identified as representing the Sun and planets and the 76-year ‘Kallippic’ calendrical cycle. This has been identified as a user’s manual that would allow ancients who were utilizing the device to interpret the information that the analog computer displayed.
– The Antikythera Mechanism features a text called the Parapegma Inscription, a list of annual astronomical events given in alphabetical order referenced by the location of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars at various points during the year.
– The Antikythera Mechanism had a number of calendars built into its design and seems to have been used to calculate the dates of festivals and rituals that took place on an irregular basis based on the position of the Sun, stars and planets.
– The Antikythera Mechanism was used to calculate when solar and lunar eclipses would occur and to predict what color eclipses would appear to the naked eye, considered of importance when predicting omens. The researchers feel that the information may also have been used to predict what wind conditions would be like at the time of eclipses.
Based on the data gathered by the team, the Antikythera Mechanism does not seem to have been engineered to be a time-keeping device, or a calendar system of some kind. Rather, it seems that the Ancient Greeks developed the first computer in order to gather and track celestial information to make astrological predictions. According to Professor Mike Edmunds, professor of astrophysics at Cardiff University, the letters inscribed on the device were a label used to describe a display,and as he explains:
“It was not a research tool, something that an astronomer would use to do computations, or even an astrologer to do prognostications, but something that you would use to teach about the cosmos and our place in the cosmos. It’s like a textbook of astronomy as it was understood then, which connected the movements of the sky and the planets with the lives of the ancient Greeks and their environment. I would see it as more something that might be a philosopher’s instructional device.”