The Antikythera Mechanism

In 1900, sponge divers off the coast of the tiny island of Antikythera on the edge of the Aegean Sea were exploring an ancient shipwreck, believed to have dated from the first century ACE. Among the artifacts successfully brought up from the bottom of the ocean were three flat, misshapen pieces of bronze, all shades of green. At first glance they look like rocks, perhaps covered with patches of mold. But close up, what is revealed is simply mind-blowing: traces of technology which look modern, including gears with tidy triangular teeth and a ring divided into degrees. Before this discovery, the earliest uses of such technology were thought to be the first geared clocks, developed in the 14th century. Here was a mystery which took decades to unravel.


Eventually, X-ray imaging in the 1970’s and 1990’s revealed that the device replicate the motions of the heavens. If you held it in your hands, you could track the paths of the sun, moon and planets with astonishing accuracy. The writer, Erich von Daniken, claimed it must have come from an alien spaceship – a lovely idea in keeping with science fiction trends at that time. However it was in 2006 that important breakthroughs occurred after the mechanisms were studied in detail, this time with CT scans at Cardiff University in Wales.


Leader of the study team, Mike Edmonds, commented, at the time, “This device is just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind …The design is beautiful, the astronomy is exactly right…In terms of historical and scarcity value, I have to regard this mechanism as being more valuable than the Mona Lisa.” Here’s what his team basically discovered:


“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 gear wheels 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”


Is this the first computer? It certainly is the oldest complex calculating machine discovered so far. Cicero, writing in the first century BCE, mentions an instrument “recently constructed by our friend Poseidonius, which at each revolution reproduces the same motions of the sun, the moon and the five planets.” This could be the machine referenced by Cicero. I don’t know about you, but such artifacts and ideas give me a shivery feeling. How utterly amazing this discovery was. And here we are, over a hundred years after it was brought up from beneath the sea, still learning about, and speculating on the uses of this amazing machine.