Exactly 115 years ago today, divers looking for sponges discovered the wreck of a 2,000-year-old vessel off the Greek island Antikythera. Scattered among the wreck’s treasures — beautiful vases and pots, jewelry, a bronze statue of an ancient philosopher — was the most peculiar thing: a series of brass gears and dials mounted in a case the size of a mantel clock. Archeologists dubbed the instrument the Antikythera mechanism. The genius — and mystery — of this piece of ancient Greek technology, arguably the world’s first computer.
At first glance, the piece of brass found near the wreck looks like something you might find in a junkyard or hanging on the wall of a maritime-themed dive bar. What remains of the mechanism is a set of rusted brass gears sandwiched into a rotting wooden box.
But if you look into the machine, you see evidence of at least two dozen gears, laid neatly on top of one another, calibrated with the precision of a master-crafted Swiss watch. This was a level of technology that archaeologists would usually date to the 16th century, not well before the first. But a mystery remained: What was this contraption used for?
To archaeologists, it was immediately apparent that the mechanism was some sort of clock, calendar, or calculating device. But they had no idea what it was for. For decades, they debated: Was the Antikythera a toy model of the planets? Or perhaps it was an early astrolabe (a device to calculate latitude)?
So you could set the main gear to the calendar date and get approximations for where those celestial objects would be in the sky on that date.
It was a computer in the sense that you, as a user, could input a few simple variables and it would yield a flurry of complicated mathematical calculations. Today the programming of computers is written in digital code — series of ones and zeros. This ancient clock had its code written into the mathematical ratios of its gears. All the user had to do was enter the main date on one gear, and through a series of subsequent gear turns, the mechanism could calculate things like the angle of the sun crossing the sky. (For some reference, mechanical calculators — which used gear ratios to add and subtract — didn’t arrive in Europe until the 1600s.)
Since Price’s assessment, modern X-ray and 3D mapping technology have allowed scientists to peer deeper into the remains of the mechanism and learn even more of its secrets.
The text — written in tiny typeface but legible ancient Greek — helped them complete the puzzle of what the machine did and how it was operated. In all, it’s astounding.
The mechanism had several dials and clock faces, each which served a different function for measuring movements of the sun, moon, stars, and planets, but they were all operated by one main crank:
Again, the mechanics of this are absurdly complicated. A 2006 Nature paper plotted out a schematic of the mechanics that connect all the gears. It looks like this. Not simple.
Researchers are still not sure who, exactly, used it. Did scientists build it to aid their calculations? Or was it a type of a teaching tool, to show students the math that held the cosmos together? Was it unique? Or are there more similar devices yet to be discovered?
Whatever it was used for and however it was built, we know this: Its discovery changed our understanding of human history, and reminds us that flashes of genius are possible in every human age.
“Nothing like this instrument is preserved elsewhere. Nothing comparable to it is known from any ancient scientific text or literary allusion,” Price wrote in 1959. “It is a bit frightening, to know that just before the fall of their great civilization the ancient Greeks had come so close to our age, not only in their thought, but also in their scientific technology.”