How the Ancient Greeks Invented the First Computer: An Introduction to the Antikythera Mechanism (Circa 87 BC)

At the cen­ter of Indi­ana Jones and the Dial of Des­tiny is a device quite like the real ancient Greek arti­fact known as the Antikythera mech­a­nism, which has been called the world’s old­est com­put­er. “Every Indi­ana Jones adven­ture needs an exot­ic MacGuf­fin,” writes’s Meilan Sol­ly, and in this lat­est and pre­sum­ably last install­ment in its series, “the hero chas­es after the Archimedes Dial, a fic­tion­al­ized ver­sion of the Antikythera mech­a­nism that pre­dicts the loca­tion of nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring fis­sures in time.” After under­go­ing Indi­ana Jone­si­fi­ca­tion, in oth­er words, the Antikythera mech­a­nism becomes a time machine, a func­tion pre­sum­ably not includ­ed in even the least respon­si­ble archae­o­log­i­cal spec­u­la­tions about its still-unclear set of func­tions.

But accord­ing to Jo Marchant, author of Decod­ing the Heav­ens: Solv­ing the Mys­tery of the World’s First Com­put­er, the Antikythera mech­a­nism real­ly is “a time machine in a sense. When you turn the han­dle on the side, you are mov­ing back­ward in time, you’re con­trol­ling time. You’re see­ing the uni­verse either being fast-for­ward­ed or reversed, and you’re choos­ing the speed and can set it to any moment in his­to­ry that you want.”

She refers to the fact that a han­dle on the side of the mech­a­nism con­trols gears with­in it, which engage to com­pute and dis­play “the posi­tions of celes­tial bod­ies, the date, the tim­ing of ath­let­ic games. There’s a cal­en­dar, there’s an eclipse pre­dic­tion dial, and there are inscrip­tions giv­ing you infor­ma­tion about what the stars are doing.”

It seems that the Antikythera mech­a­nism could tell you “every­thing you need to know about the state and work­ings of the cos­mos,” at least if you’re an ancient Greek. But it also tells us some­thing impor­tant about the ancient Greeks them­selves: specif­i­cal­ly, that they’d devel­oped much more sophis­ti­cat­ed mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing than we’d known before the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, when the device was dis­cov­ered in a ship­wreck. Accord­ing to the BBC video above on the details of the Antikythera mech­a­nis­m’s known capa­bil­i­ties, Arthur C. Clarke thought that “if the ancient Greeks had under­stood the capa­bil­i­ties of the tech­nol­o­gy, then they would have reached the moon with­in 300 years.” A grand old civ­i­liza­tion that turns out to have been on a course for out­er space: now there’s a viable premise for the next big archi­tec­tur­al adven­ture film fran­chise.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch an Accu­rate Recon­struc­tion of the World’s Old­est Com­put­er, the 2,200 Year-Old Antikythera Mech­a­nism, from Start to Fin­ish

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

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

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

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Dr Richard Baker says:

    Your the­o­ry on the mech­a­nism is the arche­ol­o­gists the­o­ry and is one of about five pos­si­bil­i­ties! It is prob­a­bly the least like­ly! Arche­ol­o­gists can only see things from their per­son­al edu­ca­tion­al lim­i­ta­tions. It is more like­ly this is from a vis­i­tor to our world in the ancient past. There are many such odd­i­ties in this world on all the con­ti­nents. Arche­ol­o­gist can­not explain any of these using cur­rent the­o­ries. It is high time that these out­dat­ed ideas be put to bed and look at more pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios! This plan­et has been vis­it­ed for mil­len­nia by advanced civ­i­liza­tions. It is quite obvi­ous that this can­not be ignored any longer. So please, make these new­er ideas avail­able to your read­ers in the name of com­plete­ness! Peo­ple have been lied to for years about UFOs and need to be enlight­ened about oth­er ideas and opin­ions. What they don’t need is more pseu­do sci­ence form arche­ol­o­gists!

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