Ancient Greek Computer

The Antikythera Mechanism is a device discovered as part of a first century B.C. shipwreck, built and designed by the ancient Greeks. The device is on display at the National Archeological Museum of Athens, with a replica made from drawings and by studying the device itself. This device gave astonishing insights into the complexity of ancient civilization's understanding of mechanics, astronomy, and complex mathematics. The device is a computer, of sorts, that calculates the motion of the planets and stars, using the motion of gears to translate these motions into a timeline for prediction and application. It resembles a clock from the eighteenth century with gears, and a box containing them.

Prior to this discovery, it was believed that the mechanics of gears and timing was invented by later civilizations with a "more advanced" understanding of the motion of the planets. After this discovery, scientists, historians, and anthropologists were forced to rethink the technologies that ancient man understood, and the underlying principles governing them. This discovery shows that modern technologies and inventions are re-inventions of the same technologies used hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Antikythera Resources:
Antikythera Research Project information and findings
Results from X-ray examination of the Antikythera device .
A detailed representation and review of the Greek computer .
Computers in ancient Greece - an article from the NY Times.
Deciphering the findings of the Antikythera device .

Two scales are used in the construction of this device, one containing the zodiac signs and another with the months of the year. A complex drum assembly allowed for the "user" of the computer to dial in a date or event on the computer, and thus know what was to happen astronomically that day. In addition, the device showed the rising and setting of particular astronomical bodies, constellations and even comets. The device's "controls" are the only known examples of graduated measurements in the ancient world. That is, they are the only "standard" measurements of the time; most other measurements were based on the length of an arm or the like. The device used markings to show when planets, the Sun, and the moon rose, as well as their placement in the sky according to a specified date.

Mechanics of the Antikythera Device:
Basics on the mechanics of ancient Greece and how they relate to the Antikythera device .
Explanations of the uses of the ancient Greek computer discovered in a shipwreck.
A brief explanation of the original ideas of what the Antikythera device was used for.
Newer findings on the purpose and uses of the ancient Greek computer .

The device also had a way of accounting for the leap year; it used the Egyptian calendar, which had no leap year and would be inaccurate by 1/4 of a day each year. The Greeks knew this and implemented repairs in the form of markings to reset the machine's mechanics in order to keep the device accurate. Overall, the device has more than thirty precisely engineered and machined gears; they were so accurate that no man could have done it by hand, which makes it far more complex than any apparatus ever found from the Hellenistic period. The device was most likely used in foretelling astronomical events important to the Greeks. The Greeks believed that being born during certain times of the year, under zodiac signs, would give a person a long and successful life. The device was almost certainly used for calculating the Olympic Games’ schedule, as well as referencing where the planets and stars were located.

Current Research on the Antikythera Device:
Ancient Greek computer findings from the BBC news.
Information on the analysis of the Antikythera device and its implications about the technology used by the ancients.
Investigating the Antikythera Mechanism - research done with 3D imaging and x-ray results.
A video representation of the Antikythera Mechanism and its research.

This device is truly complex, and it exceeds the writings of Greek historians of the time, such as Hero and Vitruvius. Their descriptions were simple and crude and truly do not show a knowledge of mechanical mastery. This has lead researchers to believe that this tradition of machining parts and gears must have been taught in an apprentice setting and passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. Archeological dating and examinations in association with the "leap year" repair to the device, date the device to around 80 B.C. Newer findings on the device suggest that the months used were the names of the months used in Syracuse, the home of Archimedes. This implies that the device may be an extension of Archimedes’ work on the mechanics of astronomy, and it provides ample evidence that this was a tradition carried on by his students and proponents. The same calendar used by the device is the Metonic calendar, and is the basis for the Jewish traditional calendar.

Today, the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project continues research on the two thousand year old device. Companies such as HP are constantly involved with the research, which now includes complex three dimensional imaging, and the discovery of even more glyphs and markings, denoting that the device had more uses than previously thought. Additional glyphs depict simultaneously the lunar and solar eclipses and their occurrence on a particular day, denoted by the time prior to or after a sunrise or sunset. Another glyph associated with these findings may in fact relate to an external text, perhaps a manual or "user's guide" on what the glyphs mean and their uses. Its amazing to be able to look back at the first sign of computer technology and see how advanced the human race was even in ancient times. Its enlightening to compare the technology of ancient times to today's paper thin laptops, wireless internet, and data recovery capabilities.