We're Finding Out More and More About This Analog Computer From Ancient Greece

Researchers used cutting-edge imaging techniques to unlock the mysteries of an Ancient Greek computer.

Youtube user Antikythera

An artifact recovered in 1901 has new meaning after its latest examination found it was used to teach ancient Greeks about our place in the cosmos.

Found in the wreck of an ancient merchant ship that sunk between 150-70 B.C., it was covered in mud and first unrecognizable as anything of importance. When Sponge divers came across it, the piece was considered insignificant compared to the other more obviously relevant relics like statues, jewelry, coins, and busts brought up from the same site. Named after the island near where it was found, it became known as the Antikythera mechanism, was cataloged and placed in storage.

Then, late in 1902, Valerios Stais, the Director of the National Archeological Museum in Athens, noticed a gear embedded in a rock among the muck and took interest. The artifact’s recovered pieces were cleaned sufficiently to show its complexity, leading Stais to theorize the device to be an astronomical clock. (Accepted thought at the time was the technology to make such a machine wasn’t developed until the 14th century). So, the mechanism was dismissed. It would be another half-century before his theories were validated.

In 1951, Derek de Solla Price, a Yale professor and science historian, began a decades-long quest to unravel the machines mysteries. In 1971, with the help of Greek colleague and radiographer Christos Karakalos, Price used gamma and x-ray technology to obtain high-resolution pictures, the only way to get usable images because of its advanced state of decay. The images gave Price enough information to build a working model and showed the mechanism and its 30 gears to be capable of accurately predicting the paths of the Sun and the Moon among other things.

Models built after Price’s, using more advanced imaging techniques, have shown the artifact is capable of much much more. It can measure the phases of the moon, follow the movements of five planets known to the ancient world, and even predict eclipses. It also seems to have some purpose in relation to the location and timing of the Ancient Greek Olympics.

And yet this ancient machine still has more to teach us. Late last week, after “more than a decade’s efforts using cutting-edge scanning equipment,” according to the Associated Press, it was announced that “an international team of scientists has now read about 3,500 characters of explanatory text,” Though the 3,500 characters translated are only a fraction of the total text known to be on the artifacts 82 recovered fragments, they offer much context for the manner and purpose of the machine.

Cleaned-up gear from the Antikytherea Mechanism


What’s been deciphered of what was written out painstakingly in millimeter-size characters across the bronze/tin surfaces of the ancient computer, shows, not a set of instructions as was hoped, but maybe something better, a description of philosophy. “It’s like a textbook of astronomy as it was understood then, which connected the movements of the sky and the planets with the lives of the ancient Greeks and their environment,” researcher Adam Jones, a professor of ancient history and science at New York University and a member of the research team, told the AP.

Though these don’t definitively answer what the makers of the Antikythera Mechanism designed it for or how to use it, the inscriptions and the painstaking manner in which they were placed, help establish its importance to its owners and to the civilization that built it. As Mike Edmunds, professor emeritus of Astrophysics from Cardiff University and a member of the research team explained to the AP, “an executive wouldn’t pay all that money to have all that waffle, it’s more serious than a toy.”

How much more serious, may have to wait for further expeditions to the wreck. Turns out there are at least 20 more gears to the machine that are unrecovered. The inscriptions containing the user manual may be included in the text on the available pieces that has yet to be deciphered, or may still lie at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.