The 2,000-Year-Old Greek Artifact That May Be the World's First Analog Computer
In October 1900, a team of sponge divers led by Greek Captain Dimitrios Kondos ran afoul of a severe storm in the Aegean Sea. Rather than risk a perilous journey through roiling waters, Kondos and his crew took shelter on the island of Antikythera. Thanks to their conservative choice, the divers' tempestuous misfortune did not end in tragedy. Instead, it began decades of discovery.
While anchored offshore, the divers explored the shallow depths. Along with the usual fare -- sponges and other bottom-dwelling sea animals -- they discovered something quite extraordinary: a massive shipwreck. Rotting corpses and dead horses were strewn nearby. Subsequent dives would wash away the macabre first impression. The ship was brimming with beautiful artifacts: statues, glasswork, pots, weapons...
What the divers found, confirmed by archaeologists and scientists over the following century, was a 2,000-year-old Roman merchant vessel filled with Greek treasure. To date, it remains the largest ancient shipwreck ever discovered, "the Titanic of the ancient world," as Brendan Foley, an archaeologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, describes it.
The Antikythera wreck yielded a bounty of artifacts when it was first discovered. By 1901, the Greek Education Ministry and the Royal Hellenic Navy salvaged a number of exquisite statues. Relatively ignored amongst the larger objects was what can only be described as a small, 340 mm × 180 mm × 90 mm "lump." When the relics were hauled to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the lump was disregarded. It sat around for months, until one day, a curator saw that it had split apart. Examining the object more closely, he noticed intricate gear wheels. Clearly, this object was much more than a mere lump! In fact, the outside that had split was a wooden box. Inside was a strange device!
Well over a century later, the Antikythera Mechanism (as the object is now called) is one of the most studied artifacts of the ancient world. Amazingly, scientists have managed to see through the wear and tear wrought by the object's 2,000-year saltwater bath and decipher its purpose. It wasn't easy. Almost every type of x-ray examination has been put to use. The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, staffed by an international team of researchers, has trucked in machines the size of trucks to image the object inside and out.
Their proddings have revealed that the object is essentially an astronomical calculator, predicting the positions of the Sun, Moon, planets, lunar and solar eclipses, and registering calendar cycles and even the dates of the Greek Olympic Games. Before sinking to its watery fate, it might have looked something like this:
The mechanism's sophistication is incredible. The gear work is precise and complex, and scientists understandably can't agree on how everything was exactly arranged. Dating estimates range between 205 and 100 BC. Pergamum, Rhodes, and Syracuse have been considered as potential places where the mechanism was constructed. Though the prospect is enticing, it is highly unlikely that Archimedes, who lived in Syracuse, constructed the device.
Despite its mechanical brilliance, the device was flawed from the moment it was devised. Based on an Earth-centered view of the cosmos, the positions of the planets were doomed to inaccuracy from the start. However, the device does constitute an exquisite attempt to model the workings of the solar system. As lead Antikythera researchers Tony Freeth and Alexander Jones wrote in 2012:
"In short, the Antikythera Mechanism was a machine designed to predict celestial phenomena according to the sophisticated astronomical theories current in its day, the sole witness to a lost history of brilliant engineering, a conception of pure genius, one of the great wonders of the ancient world—but it didn’t really work very well!"
(Images: Wikimedia Commons, Tony Freeth, Freeth et. al.)