Unravelling the mysteries of the Antikythera mechanism – the 2,100-year-old Greek ‘computer’
In 1900, Greek divers happened upon a wreckage off the coast of Antikythera. It was the largest shipwreck ever found and archaeologists believe it had been buried on the bed of the Aegean Sea since 65BCE.
Ancient computer may have predicted eclipses and told fortunes
Excavations over the past century have led to the discovery of more than 300 objects, but none compare to the recovery of what’s become known as the Antikythera mechanism – the world’s first “computer” – found on this day, 115 years ago. To mark the occasion, Google has designed a Doodle that shows the Antikythera mechanism as the central ‘O’.
The ship the Antikythera mechanism was discovered on is believed to have been a trading or cargo ship. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the importance of the bronze, corroded Antikythera mechanism was uncovered when radiography revealed the device to be a complex machine of at least 30 gear wheels.
What is the Antikythera mechanism?
The Antikythera Mechanism, the “world’s first computer”
Marsyas, CC by 2.5
Analysis suggests the Antikythera mechanism was the first known astronomical calendar, a complex system used to track and predict the cycles of the Solar System. This explains what appears to be planets in the first ‘O’ of the Google Doodle. It’s technically a ‘calculator’ rather than a ‘computer’ and for the past 20 years, researchers have been using advanced imaging methods to examine the mechanism’s structure and function.
In 2016, this revealed many of the texts on its surfaces (of which there are said to be around 2,000 characters) and much of the inscription buried inside the remaining fragments, suggesting it was akin to a “philosopher’s guide to the galaxy”. Around 95 per cent of the text has been deciphered but its full text has not been released.
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The mechanism itself was originally the size of a shoe box, with dials on the front and back. These dials were turned using a handle on the side. Although 30 gears have been found, it is thought to have once contained many more. The front of the Antikythera mechanism pointed to the location of the Sun and Moon alongside a display of the phase of the moon. When past or future dates were entered into the device it calculated the astronomical information related to the Sun, Moon, and other planets.
On the back, dials showed a 19-year cycle of lunar months, lunar and solar eclipses, and what is believed to be a four-year cycle of competitions, including the Olympic Games.
The Antikythera mechanism is currently housed in the Greek National Archaeological Museum in Athens. It was likely built around 87 BC and was lost in 76 BC. How the Greek artefact got onto the Roman ship remains a mystery. One theory suggests it was stolen or gifted to Julius Caesar during war.