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First Greek Analog Computer Used by Astronomers and Sports Fans

Updated on April 13, 2011

The First Ancient Computer

Those Greeks. They gave us democracy, the Olympics, great food and famous myths. Now they are giving us mysteries to solve. The Antikythera mechanism is a metal gear that was found among the wreckage of a sunken Roman ship about 100 years ago near the island of Antikythera, off the southern coast of Greece.

Some scientists are calling it the first computer. The bronze mechanical calculating machine goes back to the year of 150 - 100 BCE. The Antikythera device was analyzed by an x-ray tomography to see all the way through the machine. Through this, researchers have come to believe the device was designed to calculate the position of astronomical objects in outer space.

Discovery of Shipwreck from 150 B.C.

A markerAntikythera, greece -
Antikythira, Antikythera 80100, Greece
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Area where Antikythera device was found

The Amazing Discovery

Shortly before Easter in the year 1900, sponge divers were driven by bad weather to the southern Greek isle of Antikythera. While diving, they found an ancient sunken ship. After exploring the wreck with Greek archaeologists, they found statues made of bronze and marble. The artifacts they found were very heavy and it caused great difficulties with the dive, so the project was abandoned. Eight months afterwards, an archeologist was examining some of the bronze that was thought to be a broken statue. It turned out to be the Antikythera device.

The saltwater corroded some of the instruments and the moving parts don’t move anymore. But scientists have been able to reconstruct the machine. The Antikythera mechanism worked by using a hand crank to move the main dial that would show a specified date. The wheels and gears on the interior part of the machine would then show the position of the moon, sun, and the five planets known at that time. The Antikythera device could even take into account, the elliptical shape of the moon’s orbit around Earth.

This mechanical computer apparatus has been studied for many decades. An English science historian named Derek Price in 1959 was the first to put forth the idea that this device was used to study celestial bodies. Since then other scientists have confirmed this theory through x-rays and now 3-D scanning technology. There are more than 30 gears to help calculate the moon, planets, and stars. The overall size is 340 x 180 x 90 mm. Some of the parts, although done back in B.C. times, resemble the instruments used in clockmaking in the 1700’s. It is such a highly sophisticated device. The complex nature of its design is more advanced than cathedral clocks of medieval times.

Was it a Computer to Study Stars or for Sports Fans?

It is made up of a complicated system of 32 plates and wheels. Much of the way this device worked remains a mystery, scientists do know that the mechanisms kept track of dates using a 19 year calendar, with the names of months inscribed on it. It was able to predict eclipses fairly accurately using a Saros cycle that was developed by astronomers in Babylon hundreds of years prior to the invention of the Antikythera device.

The ancient computer sits in the National Archaelogy Museum in Athens, Greece.

It is also believed that the Antikythera device helped the ancient Greek sports enthusiasts keep track of the Olympic games and other athletic competitions. When the 3-D scans were conducted, it revealed hidden inscriptions that showed a dial for keeping track of the Panhellenic games. Panhellenic games were ancient sports festivals held throughout Greece that included 4 types of games: Olympics - held every 4 years, Pythian Games - scheduled every 4 years, Nemean Games - every 4 years, Isthmian Games - done every 2 years.

Ancient Greeks Had More Knowledge than Modern Man Gave Them Credit For

The sophistication and complexity of the device shows that the ancient Greeks had a great deal of knowledge about mathematics and calculations, and that this invention was well ahead of its time. This evidence helps us see the early inventions they used to watch the night skies. Some believe this machine and its advanced technology was given to us by aliens. Some think the ancient Babylonians attributed their knowledge of mechanical engineering, astronomy, and mathematics to create this invention. Early civilizations were very interested in astronomy. Their superior ability and skill in craftsmandhip helped further greater scientific knowledge.

Greeks Were Big Sports Fanatics

These games have nothing to do with astronomy, and the discovery of the hidden texts, helped scientists realize this machine was not just invented for scientific reasons. The 3-D scans showed the name Nemea, Isthmia, Olympia, and Pythia inscribed around the mechanism’s dial. These are the names of the Panhellenic games, and other lesser know contests were displayed on the device too.

Much of Greek life in ancient times revolved around sports. Evidence from ships to cups people drank from depicted sporting scenes. The Greeks were very involved in the sports of the times.

As more of the text and inner workings of the device is revealed, some mysteries are being solved, and some make the scientists ponder more. After deciphering the month’s names, they believe the device could come from the northwest area of Greece, or the island of Sicily, which was part of ancient Greece at the time. If the device originated in Sicily, scientists started wondering if the knowledge of Archimedes had something to do with this invention. Archimedes was from Sicily and from Roman history, it is believed that he invented astronomical devices. The Roman philosopher Cicero, in a book he wrote, described  a “thing” that Archimedes designed to show the sun and moon movements, and explain eclipses. It sounded very similar to the Antikythera mechanism to scientists. Even though Archimedes lived a 100 years before this particular mechanism was built, scientists believe later inventors used his knowledge.

Watch the Device in 3-D

 Images: Antikythera Mechanism Research Project. The top image and the image immediately beneath it depict the Olympic dial, which is divided into four quadrants representing the scattered stages of each Olympiad: NEMEA for the Nemean games, ISTHMIA
Images: Antikythera Mechanism Research Project. The top image and the image immediately beneath it depict the Olympic dial, which is divided into four quadrants representing the scattered stages of each Olympiad: NEMEA for the Nemean games, ISTHMIA | Source

Learning About the Inscriptions

There are still unread inscriptions to be deciphered. They are in 82 fragmented pieces, so it is like a giant jigsaw puzzle for those working on this project.

This instrument could plot the positions of the sun, moon, and stars 19 years ahead, and also keep track of all of the upcoming sporting events in ancient Greece. This device was so advanced, the craftmanship involved would not be seen until 1,000 years later. The scientists working on trying to figure out what the device did, have concluded that its main purpose was used for astronomical study, and it had the added feature of a sports calendar, similar they said to a watch that can display other features besides the time. Sports were very important to the Greeks, to the point that they halted wars in order to celebrate the games. Some scientists think the device was with the sports enthusiast in mind, and they used the moon and planets as a way to forecast the upcoming games.

The Antikythera device is the forerunner of computers and many scientific instruments. For its time, it is a technological marvel, no matter what purpose it was used for.

Antikythera Mechanism Rebuilt

Sophisticated for its Time

This discovery is significant because nothing like this type of mechanism has ever been seen before. Prior to this finding, scientistist believed the technology, skill, and craftsmanship to build such an invention did not exist. Archaeologists knew they were able to build things with gears, but the complexity of this device is superior to what scientists thought the ancient Greeks knew. All other instruments that were discovered around that time employed much simpler gearing. The Greeks had invented a taximeter, which measured how far carriage wheels travelled.

This device can be called an analog computer because it computes, but doesn’t execute any programs. It was very sophisticated for its time. Archaeologists and scientists continue to explore this ancient computer and each time uncover more of the mystery of what it can do. It is symbolic of the pinnacle of Greek scientific technology for the time period.

The mystery remains: was this device made to study the stars and has the added benefit of sports forecasting... or.... was this device made to follow sports and coincidently helped forecast the patterns of the moon, sun, and stars?

What do you think?

The Antikythera Mechanism was designed primarily:

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    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 7 years ago

      Hi Linda, It is nice to see again. I thought this was fascinating too. Discoveries like this really make you wonder what they knew back then and how.

    • lindatymensky profile image

      lindatymensky 7 years ago

      This was simply fascinating! Thanks!

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 7 years ago

      Hi Fay, You make me blush. Thank you for you kind comments and up votes.

    • profile image

      Fay Paxton 7 years ago

      I'm not sure who gives us the most...the Greeks or you with your wonderfully informative hubs. Just goes to's true, "there's nothing new under the heavens".

      voted up/useful

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 7 years ago

      Hi Amillar, Thanks for stopping by. It is always nice to see you and read your comments. It looks like a lot of the things invented are not Greek to us! I appreciate the up votes

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 7 years ago

      Hi Amillar, Thanks for stopping by. It is always nice to see you and read your comments. It looks like a lot of the things invented are not Greek to us! I appreciate the up votes

    • amillar profile image

      amillar 7 years ago from Scotland, UK

      The Greeks gave us so much - as you do with these interesting hubs. I once saw a TV program about a Greek device, which was discovered in a shipwreck, the scientists weren't sure what it was used for, but it had all the characteristics of an electronic battery.

      Up and useful (just like the Greeks.)

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 7 years ago

      Hi Gus, Well the last thing I want to do is tick you off. I will try to make my hubs less informative to please you. Thanks for stopping by and for making me smile.

    • GusTheRedneck profile image

      Gustave Kilthau 7 years ago from USA

      Hello toknowinfo - well, you have managed to really tick me off. I had believed that I already knew everything, and now you spring this Greek computer gadget on me. I have but one word for you. Thanks !

      Gus :-)))

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 7 years ago

      Hi Ian, Obviously the Greeks needed your wisdom and advice back then. Thanks for the up vote and as usual it is nice to see you.

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 7 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      So the Greeks didn't just take all their clothes off and run around in circles... So how come the European Community had to bail them out financially? They could have converted these into ATM machines and solved their own problems. Voted up.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 7 years ago

      Hi Aris, It is always nice to see you. Thank goodness for Greek knowledge, make you wonder where would we be without them. Thanks for the vote up.

    • Aris Budianto profile image

      Aris Budianto 7 years ago from Lying along the equator Country

      Great hub, Don't need to be shocked, Greeks has a lot of pent-up knowledge, vote-up.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 7 years ago

      Hi Cog, I am so glad I got your curiosity going. Let me know what else you find out. Thanks for the up rating.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 7 years ago

      Hi Pdog, To answer your question, the overall size is 340 x 180 x 90 mm. One man replicated the mechanism made out of legos blocks. Then it might really occupy the kids.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 7 years ago

      Hi RP, I thought this was cool too, that is why I wrote about it. I am glad you enjoyed reading my hub.

    • Cogerson profile image

      Cogerson 7 years ago from Virginia this is one fascinating makes you wonder many things they came up with all this knowledge so many years ago....any hub that makes me research the subject further is a great hub...and this hub did do just that....voted up

    • profile image 7 years ago

      How big is it? Is it massive or small or tiny? Fascinating - I'm sure if I had one working the kids would be occupied for hours watching it - a baby-sitting or child-minding device!

    • rpalulis profile image

      rpalulis 7 years ago from NY

      Very cool!

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 7 years ago

      Hi Simone, it is amazing what the Greeks did. The scientists are still studying this, so there is more to learn yet. I really appreciate your up vote. I am glad you stopped by.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 7 years ago

      Hi Will, Maybe it is something you can incorporate in one of your amazing western tales.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 7 years ago from San Francisco

      Wow, this is so extraordinary! I had not realized that even the Greeks had created analog computers. SO cool. Voted up!

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 7 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona


      (Then again, maybe it's a can opener!)