Researchers Develop a Digital Model of the 2,200-Year-Old Antikythera Mechanism, “the World’s First Computer”

What’s the world’s old­est com­put­er? If you answered the 5‑ton, room-sized IBM Mark I, it’s a good guess, but you’d be off by a cou­ple thou­sand years or so. The first known com­put­er may have been a hand­held device, a lit­tle larg­er than the aver­age tablet. It was also hand-pow­ered and had a lim­it­ed, but nonethe­less remark­able, func­tion: it fol­lowed the Meton­ic cycle, “the 235-month pat­tern that ancient astronomers used to pre­dict eclipses,” writes Rob­by Berman at Big Think.

The ancient arti­fact known as the Antikythera mech­a­nism — named for the Greek Island under which it was dis­cov­ered — turned up in 1900. It took anoth­er three-quar­ters of a cen­tu­ry before the secrets of what first appeared as a “cor­rod­ed lump” revealed a device of some kind dat­ing from 150 to 100 BC. “By 2009, mod­ern imag­ing tech­nol­o­gy had iden­ti­fied all 30 of the Antikythera mechanism’s gears, and a vir­tu­al mod­el of it was released,” as we not­ed in an ear­li­er post.

The device could pre­dict the posi­tions of the plan­ets (or at least those the Greeks knew of: Mer­cury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Sat­urn), as well as the sun, moon, and eclipses. It placed Earth at the cen­ter of the uni­verse. Researchers study­ing the Antikythera mech­a­nism under­stood that much. But they couldn’t quite under­stand exact­ly how it worked, since only about a third of the com­plex mech­a­nism has sur­vived.

Image by Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don

Now, it appears that researchers from the Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege of Lon­don have fig­ured it out, debut­ing a new com­pu­ta­tion­al mod­el in Sci­en­tif­ic Reports. “Ours is the first mod­el that con­forms to all the phys­i­cal evi­dence and match­es the sci­en­tif­ic inscrip­tions engraved on the mech­a­nism itself,” lead author Tony Freeth tells The Engi­neer. In the video above, you can learn about the his­to­ry of the mech­a­nism and its redis­cov­ery in the 20th cen­tu­ry, and see a detailed expla­na­tion of Freeth and his team’s dis­cov­er­ies.

“About the size of a large dic­tio­nary,” the arti­fact has proven to be the “most com­plex piece of engi­neer­ing from the ancient world” the video informs us. Hav­ing built a 3D mod­el, the researchers next intend to build a repli­ca of the device. If they can do so with “mod­ern machin­ery,” writes Guardian sci­ence edi­tor Ian Sam­ple, “they aim to do the same with tech­niques from antiq­ui­ty” — no small task con­sid­er­ing that it’s “unclear how the ancient Greeks would have man­u­fac­tured such com­po­nents” with­out the use of a lathe, a tool they prob­a­bly did not pos­sess.

Image by Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don

The mech­a­nism will still hold its secrets even if the UCL team’s mod­el works. Why was it made, what was it used for? Were there oth­er such devices? Hope­ful­ly, we won’t have to wait anoth­er sev­er­al decades to learn the answers. Read the team’s Sci­en­tif­ic Reports arti­cle here. 

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

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

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

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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