A decades-long investigation has recently shed new light into what many consider to be the world’s first computer. The ancient device, known as the Antikythera (an-ti-KEE-thur-a) Mechanism, dates back to sometime between 200 and 70 B.C. and scientists have been captivated by its mysterious function and purpose since it was discovered in an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Greece in 1901.
Earlier this week, an international team of researchers announced the results of their 10-year investigation into the enigmatic relic. The team’s findings confirm what many researchers already suspected about the device, but has also exposed fascinating new details about the ancient piece of machinery, as well as revealing new information on a period of Greek history the world knows little about.
A Puzzling, Fascinating Discovery
When fragments of the 2,100-year-old Antikythera Mechanism were first discovered over a century ago amidst a collection of bronze and marble Greek statues, scientists were perplexed about exactly what it was they had found. Initially it looked like an insignificant chunk of bronze metal. Scientists however quickly learned there was more to their discovery after the device split apart shortly after it was found, exposing the remnants of an intricate system of gears and displays.
Around the mid-1950s, researchers began to speculate that the complex, clock-like instrument composed of 30+ bronze gears and thousands of tiny interlocking teeth served as an astronomical tool used to calculate time, predict lunar and solar eclipses, and track the positions of the sun, moon, and planets. Powered by a single hand crank, the Antikythera Mechanism “modeled the passage of time and the movements of celestial bodies with astonishing precision,” according to a recent Washington Post article.
Although it was not automated or programmable, the device is considered the world’s first analog computer, with nothing quite like it appearing for another thousand years when the first geared clocks started being built in Europe during the 14th century.
According to Gizmodo, the Antikythera Mechanism—named after the southern Greek island off which it was found—is “one of the most fascinating and important archaeological discoveries ever made, one that reveals the remarkable technological and engineering capacities of the ancient Greeks as well as their excellent grasp of astronomy.”
The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project
Over 10 years ago, an international team of archaeologists, astronomers and historians teamed up to form the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project (AMRP) in an effort to learn more about the intended function of the Antikythera Mechanism.
The team used state-of-the-art x-ray scanning and imaging equipment to reconstruct the mechanism in hopes of better determining how the instrument operated. These advanced, cutting-edge imaging techniques were finally powerful enough to allow the researchers to see beneath the machine’s calcified surfaces and closer examine a “label” of tiny text etched on the device’s surviving fragments.
“What we hadn’t realized was that the modern techniques that were being used would allow us to read the texts much better, both on the outside of the mechanism and on the inside, than was done before,” noted team member Mike Edmunds, a professor of astrophysics at Cardiff University.
The researchers are now able to read nearly 3,500 characters of the explanatory text, which functions as a sort of description “label,” giving them a better idea of the Antikythera Mechanism’s intended purpose.
“Now we have texts that you can actually read as ancient Greek, whereas what we had before was like something on the radio with a lot of static,” said team member Alexander Jones, a historian from New York University. “It’s a lot of detail for us because it comes from a period from which we know very little about Greek astronomy and essentially nothing about their technology.”
A “Philosopher’s Instructional Device”
The results of the team’s research, including their analysis of the long explanatory text “label,” were published this month in a special issue of the journal Almagest, with the researchers describing the machine as “a kind of philosopher’s instructional device.”
The study’s new findings confirm previous postulations that the mechanism served an astronomical purpose, displaying planets and showing the position of the sun and the moon in the sky. However, the team now suspects the device also served as one of the very first astrological tools used for predicting the future after deciphering part of the inscribed text that referenced the coloring of forthcoming eclipses.
“We are not quite sure how to interpret this, to be fair, but it could hark back to suggestions that the color of an eclipse was some sort of omen or signal,” said Edmunds. “Certain colors might be better for what’s coming than other colors. If that is so, and we are interpreting that correctly, this is the first instance we have in the mechanism of any real mention of astrology rather than astronomy.”
Although their findings indicate the Antikythera Mechanism may have been used as a predictive tool, the research team still believe that the primary purpose of the device was astronomical, and not astrological.
“A Textbook of Astronomy”
The AMRP study also reveals that the Antikythera Mechanism was not necessarily a research tool or a device used for computations, as some researchers have previously speculated, but rather something that the Ancient Greek’s used as a teaching tool for those studying space and the cosmos. “It’s 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,” Jones said.
Other findings from the study indicate the device was likely constructed in Rhodes—the largest of Greece’s Dodecanese Islands, known for its ruins and remnants from the crusades-era occupancy—due to the instrument’s craftsmanship. Handwriting variations in the inscription also suggest that the construction was likely a team effort, involving at least two people, and that it was probably not the only one ever manufactured.
The new information revealed from the AMRP significantly improves researchers’ overall understanding of the Antikythera Mechanism’s origins and capabilities, as it looks increasingly like a “philosopher’s guide to the galaxy,” as The Washington Post put it—functioning as a teaching tool, a status symbol and an elaborate celebration of the wonders of ancient science and technology.