150 BC – Antikythera Mechanism

This post continues our  Computer Systems History series.

The Antikythera mechanism is one of the world’s oldest known geared devices, and it is widely considered to be one of the most important archeological artifacts ever found. It has puzzled and intrigued historians of science and technology since its discovery – even theories of “alien technology” and “time travel” has been speculated by some.  The mechanism is a geared device consisting of 30 gears in a highly complex arrangement that is known to model astronomical phenomenon with incredible detail. Built in Rhodes to track movement of the stars, Antikythera Mechanism is basically an ancient mechanical computer designed to calculate astronomical positions, and possibly predict astronomical events such as eclipses.

The mechanism itself was recovered in 1900–1901 from the Antikythera wreck – a shipwreck from the 1st or 2nd century DC by sponge divers on the Greek island Antikythera (hence the name).

This video shows a model of Antikythera Mechanism in action (3D Animation).

 

An Ancient Computing Device – First Computer Ever?

After the Antikythera Mechanism as been discovered, its true significance and complexity were not understood until many decades later. The construction has been dated to the period of early 1st, perhaps 2nd century BC. It was vastly advanced for those times – considering that major technological artifacts of similar complexity and workmanship did not reappear until the 14th century in form of mechanical astronomical clocks from Europe.

According to the conclusions of the The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, the device reproduces the moon’s motion across the sky and its phases during a month, forecasts eclipses, counts time and operates as a multi-faceted calendar based on circular or spiral scales. This remarkable device must have been an invaluable  tool for astronomic observations and teaching. In addition, it should have eased mapping and navigation, since it counts latitude (and possibly longitude).

Only one genuine Antikythera Mechanism has been found to this date. In addition to it being a complex and very advanced mechanism of the time, not suitable for mass production we used to today, it is also made of valuable metal. Martin Allen of Antikythera Mechanism Research Project writes: “Bronze is a valuable and highly recyclable commodity. Don’t forget bronze was used for low domination coinage at the time of the Mechanism. Consequently, bronze finds from antiquity are remarkably rare. In fact many of the significant historical bronze finds have been made underwater, where they were inaccessible to those who might have reworked them.

If you have a chance to visit Athens, you can see The Antikythera Mechanism on display at National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

Here is more great videos from Nature:

 

 

 

There are several individuals and groups that have been instrumental in advancing the knowledge and understanding of the mechanism that need to be mentioned:

  • German Philologist Albert Rehm
  • Derek J. de Solla Price
  • Charalampos and Emily Karakalos
  • Allan George Bromley
  • Frank Percival
  • Michael Wright
  • Bernard Gardner
  • The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project

 

For further reading, see used (and recommended) resources:

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