The Antikythera Mechanism: Who Designed the World’s Oldest Astronomical Computer?

The Antikythera Mechanism: Who Designed the World’s Oldest Astronomical Computer?


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Since its discovery in a shipwreck near Greece in 1900, an ancient metallic astronomical clock, called the ‘Antikythera Mechanism’ still baffles scientists. Research articles on the clock offer loose context for what the device is and what is does, but virtually none tackle the outstanding hard questions - who made it and where did its inherent astronomical and mechanical knowledge come from?

The Antikythera Mechanism (Fragment A – front); visible is the largest gear in the mechanism, approximately 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) in diameter. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Discovering the Antikythera Mechanism

In the spring of 1900, fishermen diving for sea sponges off the coast of Antikythera island in Greece, came across the shocking sight of scores of human limbs, faces and horses. The first diver to resurface was panicked by having found: “too many men and horses for him to count,” which he had presumed had met their fate in a shipwreck. However, it was not the corpses that had set fear into his heart, but he had discovered a rare collection of ancient Greek statues forgotten in time on the seabed of the Mediterranean.

Over the next year divers recovered several marble and bronze artifacts from the Antikythera shipwreck, which still today remains the largest ancient ship ever found. Several of the rare bronze statues were believed to be the work of Lysippos or Praxiteles, two of the most important Classical Greek sculptors of the fourth century BC.


Antikythera Mechanism, The World’s Oldest Computer

A little over a century ago, an extraordinary discovery was made. Sponge divers found a mysterious device at the bottom of the sea off the shores of the island of Antikythera. From the get-go, the device intrigued the international community specialized in the ancient world. What was it – an astronomical clock? An orrery? Or something else? Here is a brief introduction to the Antikythera mechanism, considered the world’s oldest computer.


A Mysterious Find

In 1901, divers working the wreck recovered marble and bronze statues, coins, jewelry, glass artifacts, and over 200 amphorae, some of them intact. They also brought up some finely worked vases, other high end goods, and some of the era&rsquos most prized works of art. Among the objects recovered was a wooden box 13.4 inches high, 7.1 inches wide, and 3.4 inches in depth. Inside the box was a severely corroded lump of bronze, that began disintegrating as soon as it was removed from the water. All items from the Antikythera Wreck were taken to a museum in Athens. There, the wooden box and its contents were initially ignored, while archaeologists focused on restoring the more identifiable treasures, such as the statues, jewels, and coins.

A year later, however, an archaeologist named Valerios Stais took a closer look at the wooden box&rsquos contents, and was surprised to discover what he identified as a gear. Further examination was conducted into the corroded lump of bronze, which initially consisted of 4 main lump fragments. As researchers painstakingly cleared the corrosion and encrustation, the 4 main lumps became 82 distinct pieces, including many more gears. All in all, the box contained about 30 meshing bronze gears, the largest of which measured about 5.5 inches in diameter, and had 223 teeth.

Working together, the box&rsquos contents amounted to a complex clockwork mechanism, and Valerios Stais figured it must have been some kind of astronomical calculation device. However, most scholars at the time reasoned that the device, which came to be known as the Antikythera Mechanism, was too complex to have been manufactured in the 1 st century BC. Instead, they concluded that it must have been made centuries later, then been lost at sea, and came to rest by mere coincidence atop the earlier debris of the Antikythera Wreck.

The Antikythera Wreck. Why Athens

As a result, further research into the Antikythera Mechanism was abandoned for decades. It did not resume until the 1950s, when Derek John de Solla Price, a Yale professor who specialized in the history science, took an interest in the device. Over the next two decades, he conducted intensive research into the mechanism, including the use of gamma-rays and x-rays, before publishing a 70 page paper on his findings in 1974. In it, professor Price demonstrated that the device did, indeed, date to the 1 st century BC, and as Valerios Stais had guessed seven decades earlier, the mechanism was an astronomical clock.

After carefully examining the gears, professor Price figured out that the device had been used to predict where the planets and stars would be positioned in the sky, on any given calendar month. It worked by moving the biggest gear, which represented the calendar year. That gear, in turn, would move other, smaller gears, that represented the motions of the sun, the moon, plus those of several planets.


Richard

I’m sure it’s a portal machine to take your wealth with you to the afterlife.

Nohomehere

Are we serious? Does one assume that there was a limited knowledge of stars and planets in the age of the building of the Antikythera machine. Why?
The books, that our current civilizations evolution are based upon, carry forward the written records of what astronomy was and to a degree, so many scholars cannot comprehend how the past members of ancient societies could have known, with out the aid of sophisticated computers and modern instruments.
Who says the creators did not know of all the planets? What if this was merely a limited use machine created for a specific purpose?
A gift perhaps, that ended up in a different time, none the less a gift?!

It could be for any number of purposes, we really don’t know. It could have been one of many, or it might be unique. It appears to be able to predict things like eclipses, but with so much of it missing, all we can do is speculate.


Decoding the Antikythera Mechanism, the First Computer

A fter 2,000 years  under the  sea, three flat, misshapen pieces of bronze at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens are all shades of green, from emerald to forest. From a distance, they look like rocks with patches of mold. Get closer, though, and the sight is stunning. Crammed inside, obscured by corrosion, are traces of technology that appear utterly modern:  gears with neat triangular teeth (just like the inside of a clock) and a ring divided into degrees (like the protractor you used in school). Nothing else like this has ever been discovered from antiquity. Nothing as sophisticated, or even close, appears again for more than a thousand years.

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For decades after divers retrieved these scraps from the Antikythera wreck from 1900 to 1901, scholars were unable to make sense of them. X-ray imaging in the 1970s and 1990s revealed that the device must have replicated the motions of the heavens. Holding it in your hands, you could track the paths of the Sun, Moon and planets with impressive accuracy. One investigator dubbed it “an ancient Greek computer.” But the X-ray images were difficult to interpret, so mainstream historians ignored the artifact even as it was championed by fringe writers such as Erich von Däniken, who claimed it came from an alien spaceship. It wasn’t until 2006 that the Antikythera mechanism captured broader attention. That year, Mike Edmunds of Cardiff University in Wales and his team published CT scans of the fragments, revealing more details of the inner workings, as well as hidden inscriptions—and triggering a burst of scholarly research. 

The Antikythera mechanism was similar in size to a mantel clock, and bits of wood found on the fragments suggest it was housed in a wooden case. Like a clock, the case would’ve had a large circular face with rotating hands. There was a knob or handle on the side, for winding the mechanism forward or backward. And as the knob turned, trains of interlocking gearwheels drove at least seven hands at various speeds. Instead of  hours and minutes, the hands displayed celestial time: one hand for the Sun, one for the Moon and one for each of the five planets visible to the naked eye—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  A rotating black and silver ball showed the phase of the Moon. Inscriptions explained which stars rose and set on any particular date. There were also two dial systems on the back of the case, each with a pin that followed its own spiral groove, like the needle on a record player. One of these dials was a calendar. The other showed the timing of lunar and solar eclipses.

The largest of the 82 pieces of the mechanism found so far, Fragment A has four spokes that would’ve rotated once per year, tracking the Sun relative to background stars. (Brett Seymour / WHOI ) A dial on the back (model shown) is for eclipses. (Losmi Chobi / AP Images)

Experts have been working to decipher inscriptions hidden inside the mechanism, in particular to understand the mechanism’s missing pieces, some destroyed, some probably still at the bottom of the sea. Though the pointers on the front face don’t survive, Alexander Jones, a historian at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York, says an inscription reveals that they carried colored balls: fiery red for Mars, gold for the Sun. 

Also missing are the parts that drove the planetary pointers, leading to debate about exactly how they moved. Because planets orbit the Sun, when viewed from Earth they appear to wander back and forth in the sky. The Greeks explained this motion with “epicycles”: small circles superimposed on a larger orbit. According to Michael Wright, a former curator at London’s Science Museum who has studied the mechanism longer than anyone, it modeled epicycles with trains of small gears riding around larger ones. Though some experts have dismissed this as beyond the Greeks’ abilities, Jones says he will publish evidence supporting the idea later this year.

Other inscriptions hint at where the mechanism was made. Paul Iversen, a classicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, reports that the calendar includes month names used in Corinth and its colonies in northwest Greece. A dial that displayed the timing of major athletic festivals, including the Olympics, lists Naa, a festival held in northwest Greece, and Halieia, held to the south on the island of Rhodes. Perhaps the mechanism hailed from Rhodes and was being shipped north. The ancient philosopher Posidonius had a workshop in Rhodes that could have been the source according to Cicero, Posidonius made a similar model of the heavens in the first century B.C.

The tradition of making such mechanisms could be much older. Cicero wrote of a bronze device made by Archimedes in the third century B.C. And James Evans, a historian of astronomy at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, thinks that the eclipse cycle represented is Babylonian in origin and begins in 205 B.C. Maybe it was Hipparchus, an astronomer in Rhodes around that time, who worked out the math behind the device. He is known for having blended the arithmetic-based predictions of Babylonians with geometric theories favored by the Greeks. 

Regardless, the Antikythera mechanism proves that the ancient Greeks used complex arrangements of precisely cut wheels to represent the latest in scientific understanding. It’s also a window into how the Greeks saw their universe. They came to believe that nature worked according to predefined rules, like a machine—an approach that forms the basis of our modern scientific views. Edmunds argues that this “mechanical philosophy” must have developed as a two-way process. The ancient mechanics who captured the cosmos in bronze weren’t just modeling astronomical theories but were also inspiring them.

About Jo Marchant

Jo Marchant is an award-winning science journalist and former editor at New Scientist and Nature. She is the author of The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars and The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut's Mummy.


The Antikythera Mechanism: Who Designed the World’s Oldest Astronomical Computer? - History

A fragment of the Antikythera computer. The mechanism is kept at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Photo: Marsyas’s photo is licensed under CC-BY-2.5.

An international team of scientists recently determined, using cutting-edge technology, that the once-mysterious Antikythera Mechanism was a mechanical crank-operated elaborate astronomical calendar. The Antikythera Mechanism, which was originally housed in a wooden box the size of a toaster oven, is considered the world’s first mechanical computer.

Discovered in 1901 in a mid-first-century B.C.E. shipwreck off the coast of the southern Greek island that gave its name to the mechanism, the Antikythera computer initially paled in comparison to the bronzes, jewelry and coins found alongside it. However, the gears and the unknown use of the mechanism soon attracted a host of varying hypotheses.

The team of scientists used new scanning and imaging technology to read 3,500 letters—some only 1/20 of an inch tall—inscribed on the 2,000-year-old Antikythera computer.

From these letters, which were only a quarter of the original text, the Antikythera computer emerges as a solar and lunar calendar that displayed the position of the planets, the sun and the moon in relation to the Zodiac. Interestingly, the advanced calendar was even capable of determining the color of forthcoming eclipses, prompting researchers to hypothesize that the Antikythera computer served a predictive and astrological, as well astronomical, function.

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Cardiff University Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics Mike Edmunds says that the inscription reads less like an instruction manual and more like a brief museum display description, the Associated Press reports.

Alexander Jones, Professor of the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, emphasizes to the Associated Press that “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.”
“I would see it as more something that might be a philosopher’s instructional device,” Jones added.

While imperfect and inexact, Jones explains that the Antikythera computer is “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.”

Researchers suggest that the Antikythera computer was manufactured in a workshop on the island of Rhodes between 200 and 70 B.C.E. and was not unique, because a dozen references in Classical literature describe similar devices. However, the technology appears to have been lost, and its advancement would be unparalleled until the Medieval clocks of European cathedrals.

After exhausting almost all the available text, the team hopes that archaeologists revisiting the shipwreck will uncover new fragments or even another similar mechanism. Who knows what insights new discoveries may provide for the Antikythera computer and the ancient Greek view of the heavens.

David Malamud is an intern at the Biblical Archaeology Society.


Is Antikythera Mechanism the oldest computer ever known

A little over a century ago, an astonishing object made up of bronze and wood was discovered by sponge divers at bottom of the sea near the island of Antikythera, that slowly became the topic of debate within the renown international community on how little we know about our glorious past of the ancient world. For decades, scientists failed to fully understand the mechanism which resulted in a lot of speculation about the object. Some said it was left by aliens, some considered it to be an evidence of time travel. But now its slowly getting decoded and considered to be a mechanism used to operate as a complex mechanical “computer” which performs astronomical calculations. Hence it is often called the earliest computer. Here are some of the important details,

How old is the mechanism?

The device is said to be from around the end of 2nd century B.C. It is the most sophisticated mechanism known from the ancient world and nothing as complex is known for the next thousand years.

What is it and how was it used?

The Antikythera Mechanism is considered to be dedicated to astronomical phenomena and operates as a complex mechanical “computer” which tracks the cycles of the Solar System. The device is a complex clockwork mechanism composed of at least 30 bronze gears. Its remains were found as one lump, later separated in three main fragments, which are now divided into 82 separate fragments after conservation works.

The mechanism has 3 main dials, one on the front, and two on the back. The front dial is marked with the divisions of the Egyptian calendar. Inside this there is a second dial marked with the Greek signs of the Zodiac. This second dial is movable dial so that it can be adjusted to compensate for leap years. space

The front dial probably carried three hands, one showing the date, and two others showing the positions of the Sun and the Moon. The Moon indicator is cleverly adjusted to show the anomaly of the Moon’s orbit. Sun indicator is assumed to have a similar adjustment. The front dial also includes a second mechanism with a spherical model of the Moon that displays its phase. The front dial also includes a device used to mark the rising and setting of specific stars.

There is reference in the inscriptions for the planets Mars and Venus with gears to show their positions. The mechanism is also speculated to have had indicators for the 5 planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) known to the Greeks at that time.

When was it found?

The artifact was recovered as a lump of corroded bronze and wood, probably in July 1901 from the Roman era shipwreck, off the Greek island of Antikythera. Believed to have been designed and constructed by Greek scientists, the instrument has been dated either between 150 and 100 BC, or, according to a more recent view, in 205 BC. The Mechanism is believed to be made of Bronze, or more specifically a low tin bronze (95% copper, 5% tin).

Where it is kept?

All fragments of the Antikythera mechanism are kept at the National Archaeological Museum, in Athens Greece.

Why its discovery is so significant?

The machine dates from around the end of the 2nd century B.C, and is the most sophisticated mechanism known from the ancient world. It is widely regarded as an important archaeological artifacts ever found. It remained unnoticed for many decades and all important aspects of the mechanism was decoded only after 75 years of its discovery.

The mechanism was designed to calculate dates and predict astronomical phenomena, has therefore been called the earliest analog computer. The workmanship and the complexity with which it is built was lost in antiquity, it didn’t appear again until the development of mechanical astronomical clocks in Europe in the fourteenth century. This means for close to 1500 years, this device could have been the most advanced mechanism of its kind.

The level of engineering in the mechanism is astonishing by any standards. The mechanism also provides a unique window of opportunity to understand the astronomical capabilities of our ancestors. In many ways the mechanism provides us with an encyclopedia of the astronomical knowledge of the time.


Discovering the Antikythera Mechanism

In the spring of 1900, fishermen diving for sea sponges off the coast of Antikythera island in Greece, came across the shocking sight of scores of human limbs, faces and horses. The first diver to resurface was panicked by having found: “too many men and horses for him to count,” which he had presumed had met their fate in a shipwreck. However, it was not the corpses that had set fear into his heart, but he had discovered a rare collection of ancient Greek statues forgotten in time on the seabed of the Mediterranean.


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