How the World’s Oldest Computer Worked: Reconstructing the 2,200-Year-Old Antikythera Mechanism

In 1900, Greek sponge divers dis­cov­ered a ship­wreck off the Greek island of Antikythera. The arti­facts they came back up with includ­ed mon­ey, stat­ues, pot­tery, and var­i­ous oth­er works of art and craft, as well as a curi­ous lump of bronze and wood that turned out to be by far the most impor­tant item onboard. When an archae­ol­o­gist named Vale­rios Stais took a look at it two years lat­er, he noticed that the lump had a gear in it. Almost a half-cen­tu­ry lat­er, the sci­ence his­to­ri­an Derek J. de Sol­la Price thought this appar­ent­ly mechan­i­cal object might mer­it fur­ther exam­i­na­tion, and almost a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry after that, he and the nuclear physi­cist Char­alam­bos Karaka­los pub­lished their discovery–made by using X‑ray and gam­ma-ray images of the interior–that those divers had found a kind of ancient com­put­er.

“Under­stand­ing how the pieces fit togeth­er con­firmed that the Antikythera mech­a­nism was capa­ble of pre­dict­ing the posi­tions of the plan­ets with which the Greeks were famil­iar — Mer­cury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Sat­urn — as well as the sun and moon, and eclipses,” writes Big Think’s Rob­by Berman. “It even has a black and white stone that turns to show the phas­es of the moon.”

Deter­min­ing how it real­ly worked has required the build­ing of var­i­ous dif­fer­ent mod­els of var­i­ous dif­fer­ent kinds, one of which you can see assem­bled, oper­at­ed, and dis­as­sem­bled before your very eyes in the CGI ren­der­ing at the top of the post. Its design comes from the work of his­to­ri­an of mech­a­nism Michael T. Wright, who also put togeth­er the phys­i­cal recre­ation of the Antikythera mech­a­nism you can see him explain just above.

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

By its very nature, an arti­fact as fas­ci­nat­ing and as incom­plete as this draws all sorts of the­o­ries about the specifics of its design, pur­pose, and even its age. (It dates back to some­where between 205 and 100 BC.) In 2012, Tony Freeth and Alexan­der Jones pub­lished their own mod­el, dif­fer­ent from Wright’s, of this “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 one which “didn’t real­ly work very well.” Some of the prob­lems has to do with the lim­i­ta­tions of ancient Greek astro­nom­i­cal the­o­ry, and some with the unre­li­a­bil­i­ty of its lay­ers of hand­made gears.

More recent research, adds Berman, has dis­cov­ered that “the device was built by more than one per­son on the island of Rhodes, and that it prob­a­bly wasn’t the only one of its kind,” indi­cat­ing that the ancient Greeks, despite the appar­ent defi­cien­cies of the Antikythera mech­a­nism itself, “were appar­ent­ly even fur­ther ahead in their astro­nom­i­cal under­stand­ing and mechan­i­cal know-how than we’d imag­ined.” Now watch the video just above, in which the Apple engi­neer makes his own Antikythera mech­a­nism with an entire­ly more mod­ern set of com­po­nents, and just imag­ine what the ancient Greeks could have accom­plished had they devel­oped Lego.

via Big Think

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Intro­duc­tion to Ancient Greek His­to­ry: A Free Online Course from Yale

How the Ancient Greeks Shaped Mod­ern Math­e­mat­ics: A Short, Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

How Ancient Greek Stat­ues Real­ly Looked: Research Reveals their Bold, Bright Col­ors and Pat­terns

Mod­ern Artists Show How the Ancient Greeks & Romans Made Coins, Vas­es & Arti­sanal Glass

Dis­cov­er the “Brazen Bull,” the Ancient Greek Tor­ture Machine That Dou­bled as a Musi­cal Instru­ment

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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