The Antikythera Mechanism: Ancient Computer

I’ve followed with interest two recent scientific stories: the discovery of evidence for water flowing recently on Mars, and the excited understanding that the ancient Greeks constructed their own analog computer — the Antikythera Mechanism.

It’s the second story that intrigues me greatly.  There are many sites on the Web where one can delve into this development in considerable detail, and I don’t want to repeat all of that.  But I am interested enough to go over some of the highlights and provide links to a few of the better pages.

In the scientific journal Nature of November 30, 2006, Michael Edmunds, et al., reported on their x-ray examination of a mechanical device from the end of the Second Century B.C. that is so astounding it brings up thoughts of Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods? and Graham Hancock’s books on ancient lost civilizations.  (Of course, these latter fellows’ ideas can be dismissed as pseudoscience, but I appreciate the open-ended nature of their questioning of the scientific establishment.)

corroded.jpgIn 1901, divers exploring off the Greek isle of Antikythera pulled up a corroded clockwork mechanism with hints of artfully meshed gears and levers.  The date of the artifact was established as over two millenia old.  The new X-ray investigation indicates as many as 34 interlocked geared wheels.  The mechanism has many inscriptions thought to be of astronomical significance.

As Jo Marchant says in her news feature in the same edition of Nature:

No earlier geared mechanism of any sort has ever been found. Nothing close to its technological sophistication appears again for well over a millennium, when astronomical clocks appear in medieval Europe. It stands as a strange exception, stripped of context, of ancestry, of descendants.

Until the fact of this mechanism, all the known history of the Greeks would indicate that it shouldn’t exist.  Most scholars have always felt the Greeks preferred abstraction and theory, and there certainly has never been a hint of any device such as this.

This intricate clockwork device, which has been described as an analog computer, calculated and connected the date and the movement of the Sun, Moon and planets.  Researchers have realized that this device models, for instance, the nine year cycle of the offset circular orbit of the moon by cunning mechanical means.

One of the Nature researchers, a mathematician, said: “It’s an unbelievably sophisticated idea.  I don’t know how they thought of it.”

antikythera.jpgThe instrument seems to be what is called an orrery, a moving mechanical depiction of the solar system — bodies circling around the sun.  It wasn’t supposedly until the time of Galileo that this view took hold over the view of the Earth as central to the heavens.  And until now the first orrery was thought to have been built around 1704 by an Englishman.

Many inscriptions on the Antikythera Mechanism have apparently been translated but are described as “cryptic.”

“We’ve at least doubled the amount of inscription that was known,” said the Nature researcher Edmunds.  Notably, the word “stationary” appears several times, perhaps referring to planetary motion, which seems to halt at times because of Earth’s relative orbital motion, the research group speculates. Other inscriptions include “Aphrodite” or “Venus,” “little golden sphere” (referring presumably to the marker for the sun) and “trunnion,” a mechanical pivot.  Take a look at the inscriptions inside the mechanism in this article on the History Hunters site.

For more detailed specifics of the device, read this fascinating 1959 Scientific American article by Derek J. De Solla Price.

There have been at least a couple of attempts to reconstruct the mechanism, none of which have been completely satisfactory.

To me, the existence of the mechanism is suggestive of our ignorance and arrogance about our superiority over not only the Greeks and other early civilizations known to history (not to mention our attitudes towards more modern non-Western cultures), but also of that immeasurable darkness we call pre-history.

I’ve got to end with a couple of odd tangents, although still scientific, sort of.  The first one’s about fire and music.  Take a look at this video about Ruben’s Tube.

This other one is all about the natural look from a design studio in the Netherlands.


Note:  For another post on this, see The Antikythera Mechanism Revisited.

Explore posts in the same categories: Science

6 Comments on “The Antikythera Mechanism: Ancient Computer”

  1. modu Says:

    A much better description of the object than what I drafted. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  2. fencer Says:

    I noted on your site about appreciating the historical context you gave it. It is just such a fascinating thing, isn’t it?


  3. modu Says:

    Yeah, it is. It makes you wonder exactly how advanced people were back then. We can see items like the Pyramids and marvel at their construction and guess as to how they were created back then. But take something like this object here. Just a hundred years ago we might have been able to create a manual computer to calculate these astronomical events since our overall technological knowledge and skill was advanced enough. However, 2000 years ago someone beat us to this. How did they figure it out, and more importantly, how did they physically build the object with such accuracy? Very impressive and mind boggling.

  4. fencer Says:

    And maybe this small bit was just part of the Cray supercomputer of its time!


  5. sputnki Says:

    Thanks for doing a blog on this fascinating device. It really is quite a puzzle isn’t it? You really get the sense that invention and ideas “spark” fitfully throughout time, and only very occasionally light into a fire.


  6. fencer Says:

    Hi Doug,

    Nice to hear from you!

    It makes me wonder and think about the limited truth of our historical knowledge…

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you!


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