The Antikythera Mechanism, The World’s Oldest Computer

When sponge divers off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera in 1900 stumbled upon shipwreck, they had no idea they'd discovered the world's oldest computer.

When sponge divers off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera in 1900 stumbled upon a bronze hand with a finger missing, underwater archaeologists swept in to find an incredible collection of statues and coins.

Working with the limits of early-20th-century underwater excavation, they recovered what they could. Much of the cargo was damaged by thousands of years in salt water. But some of it survived in extraordinarily good condition, thanks, in some cases, to be partially buried under the sand and silt and therefore protected from the corrosive salt water.

Several of the finds are now on public display, scattered through the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. They include the Antikythera Ephebe, a large bronze statue. There’s the impressive head of a philosopher, with its eerie piercing glass eyes. And downstairs in the open courtyard next to the cafeteria, there are some weathered marble statues, including one of a large horse, some of which has been weathered and some preserved remarkably well.

But amongst the haul were some small fragments of bronze. For decades after they were found, no-one was quite sure what they were. And, indeed, it’s really only since the 1970s, and even more recently, that consensus has developed on them.

As impressive as the statues and coins are, it’s these fragments, collectively known as the Antikythera Mechanism, that are the most extraordinary. It’s often referred to as the first analog computer.

With incredible precision of creativity, engineering, and manufacturing, its 36 or so cogs and wheels work together to make a whole range of calculations.

Basically, it’s a remarkably sophisticated astronomical computer. To the extent that its students have managed to unlock its secrets, it appears that it was used for calculating positions of the stars, moon phases, eclipses, and the host city of the Olympic games in any given Olympiad (there were only four choices at the time).

And just as remarkably, its creator carved instructions into the faces, suggesting it might have been used for students or wealthy benefactors.

Who created it remains a mystery. And it’s not clear exactly how old it is; estimates range from 100 BC to 205BC. But its raw ingenuity and sophistication for its era is mind-boggling. It wasn’t until about 1500 years later, with the development of astronomical clocks, that European technology finally caught up again to a similar point.

The Antikythera Mechanism’s Mechanics

The parts of the mechanism that have survived are seven large fragments and 75 small pieces, although it’s not entirely clear whether all of these small pieces belong to the mechanism.

Originally, it contained at least 30 gears, dials, scales, axles, and pointers. On the surface of many of the fragments there are Greek inscriptions about astronomical and calendar calculations as well as an instruction manual. The whole thing was likely originally contained in a wooden case, although that part has long since gone.

From when it was first found, it was suspected to be some kind of astronomical, astrological, or navigation tool, but it’s only in recent decades that more of its secrets have been unlocked thanks to cleaning, dedicated research, and a battery of new-technology scientific tests like X-ray linear tomography, photography, plain radiography, and advanced surface imaging and high-resolution 3D X-ray tomography.

The upshot is that scientists have been able to peer inside and then recreate the workings of the Mechanism. Three of the most important recreations of the machine, each distinctive, are on display in the exhibit alongside the original Mechanism.

Photos of the Antikythera Mechanism

A 1970s reconstruction of the Antikythera Mechanism designed by Derek de Solla Price and constructed by R. Deroski.

A model of the Antikythera Mechamism designed and constructed by Michael Wright (2009).

The front side of a model of the Antikythera Mechamism designed and constructed by Michael Wright (2009).

What to Know Before You Go

  • If you’d like to know more, I very much recommend Jo Merchant’s Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer–and the Century-long Search to Discover Its Secrets. I read it several years ago, and it was the first I’d heard of the Antikythera Mechanism. It’s a great read and a fascinating story.
  • Where to Find It. When you’re at the National Archaeological Museum, you’ll see references around the place to the Antikythera Mechanism being on display in Gallery 38 in the section displaying the bronze collection. That information is outdated, and you’ll find empty showcases in Gallery 38 where some of the artefacts were once displayed. The Antyikythera Mechanism now has its own shiny new exhibit room in Gallery 43, thanks at least in part to sponsorship by the watch company Hublot. The exhibit is right at the back of the museum. As you come in the museum’s main entrance, go straight, and keep going all the way until you come to the stairwell. Don’t go up the stairs—take a right at their base, and the Antikythera Mechanism exhibit is just through the first door, on your left as you pass through.
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