The Antikythera Mechanism: An Ancient Computer
Older than Apple, Younger than the Stars
The Antikythera Mechanism: An Ancient Computer?
The modern concept of a computer has been defined by the expansive marketing policies of companies such as Apple and IBM and their products, and is often considered to have come about only with the relatively recent advances set by men such as Alan Turing, yet the reality is that a computer has its origins as any ancient counting device, as can be seen in the antique Chinese computer, known as the abacus in the west. Yet the west also has its ancient calculators, in this case, one used not for simple arithmetic calculation, but for use by astronomers in their considerations of the celestial spheres. This is the Antikythera Mechanism.
Discovered in 1900 in the waters near Antikythera, roughly between the Greek mainland and the island of Crete, the mechanism, which is one of a kind in the world, is considered one of the greatest examples of ancient science and technology. Shortly after discovery it, the device was thought to be used for determining eclipses and other astronomical phenomena, a hypothesis that proved to be correct as the writing on the mechanism was cleaned up and made legible.
Studies about its exact time of origin lead researchers to conclude that it was created between 150 and 100 B.C. This then negates the earlier belief that its creator might have been the Greek Stoic philosopher Posidonious, who was known to have successfully created an orrery. Other names that have been suggested as the mechanism’s creator are Hipparchus, long considered the greatest astronomer of antiquity (and possibly the creator of the astrolabe) and that great engineer-astronomer, Archimedes, who, according to Cicero in De re publica, designed a similar device.
To understand the magnanimity and import of the device one must consider not only the age in which it was built in relation to its craftsmanship (such technology would not be seen again in the west for nearly 2,000 years!), but also its great accuracy and the tiny size of the device, 33 x 17 x 9 centimeters, an incredibly petite device even by today’s standards for an analog astronomical instrument.
Alas, while certain uses of the device can be extrapolated from theory and experiment, the exact purpose of the Antikythera Mechanism remains unknown. However, research is ongoing with groups such as the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project and other, independent research groups throughout the world. Their findings may yet prove to be more luminous and surprising.